Negative COVID-19 Test Required for International Air Travellers to the U.S.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the U.S. in a significant way since March 2020. While the current U.S. administration has taken steps toward expanding vaccine eligibility and accelerating distribution, many people hoped that the vaccine would put an end to the economic and international effects on communities worldwide.

Effective January 26, 2021, all travellers flying to the U.S. must provide a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours before boarding an aircraft.

Despite vaccinations taking place throughout the country, COVID-19 cases continue to rise and new strains of the virus have been announced. On January 14, we reported that the U.S. Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Director, Dr. Robert R. Redfield, announced that, before international passengers board their flights to the U.S., they will be required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test obtained within three days of their scheduled flight. This new requirement for U.S. air travel is similar to the testing rules recently introduced for air travel to Canada.

Specifically, Dr. Redfield  announced that, while testing does not eliminate all risk, when combined with a period of staying at home and everyday precautions such as wearing masks and social distancing, it can make travel healthier and safer for everyone.

On January 21, 2021, President Biden signed an executive order requiring all individuals travelling to the U.S. from a foreign country to provide proof of a “recent” negative COVID-19 test before prior to entry “to the extent reasonably possible.”

In addition, the Executive Order requires all travellers to comply with other applicable Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines concerning international travel, including recommended periods of self-quarantine or self-isolation after entry into the United States.

What type of COVID-19 test is required?

The negative pre-departure test must be a viral test that was conducted on a specimen collected urging the three calendar days preceding the flight’s departure from a foreign country.  Alternatively, if the passenger has recovered from COVID-19, the passenger may instead travel with written electronic documentation of a positive COVID-19 test and a letter from a licensed health care provider or public health official stating that the passenger has been cleared to fly.

Do I have to test if I have already been vaccinated?

CDC spokesperson Jason McDonald noted in his statement that proof of vaccination will not be sufficient since the vaccines have only been proven to prevent serious illness at this time. Since vaccinated people may still become infected and transmit the virus on a flight, the need for a negative COVID-19 test remains.

Does this requirement apply to Americans as well?

The CDC’s statements indicate that the requirement will apply to “all international airline passengers” including U.S. citizens. The anticipated order does make some exceptions for airline crews, certain military personnel and passengers under the age of two.

What if a traveller is unable to get tested prior to travel?

Each airline will be responsible for confirming that each passenger has a negative test result before they board the plane. Should a passenger not be able to provide sufficient proof or if they elected not to be tested, the airlines will be required to deny the individual boarding the aircraft. Thus, no negative test means no travel to the U.S. until sufficient evidence of a test is obtained.

Why now?

During a briefing on the intended policy, Martin Cetron, the Director of the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, pointed to the surge in air travel to the U.S. since June of 2020 despite the on-going pandemic.

Over the holiday season, more than 2.1 million passengers arrived in the U.S. between December 1 and December 28, 2020, with an average number of 76,000 passengers a day arriving in the U.S. These numbers were four times higher than the initial surge in airline travel seen in June 2020.

The airlines have also encouraged a rapid-testing program to be implemented to allow necessary and essential travel to resume.

Travel during COVID-19 can be difficult to navigate and inconsistent application of the rules is common. Individuals planning to travel to Canada during the pandemic should obtain a full review and opinion to ensure rules are correctly applied to their application for entry. MLT Aikins has significant experience advising clients on immigration law matters and would be pleased to discuss the implications of this program.

Note: This article is of a general nature only and is not exhaustive of all possible legal rights or remedies. In addition, laws may change over time and should be interpreted only in the context of particular circumstances such that these materials are not intended to be relied upon or taken as legal advice or opinion. Readers should consult a legal professional for specific advice in any particular situation.