The US will finally catch up with most major tourist nations by lifting remaining Covid travel restrictions from May 12, 2023.
Current rules mean many unvaccinated international visitors have been banned from the US for more than three years since President Trump banned British and European travelers at the start of the pandemic.
When Joe Biden became president in January 2021, Donald Trump’s ban on visitors from the UK and several other countries continued for almost a year.
America finally opened up to fully vaccinated British and other nationals visitors in November 2021. But international travelers without Covid vaccines faced an additional 18-month wait.
The relaxation is likely to cause a surge in travel and possibly higher prices as previously excluded visitors take family, business and holiday trips.
The travel industry has, predictably, welcomed the easing of restrictions. But some other major nations maintain strict Covid rules.
These are the key questions and answers.
What are the current travel rules in the United States?
International visitors to the United States must be fully vaccinated and show a “record issued by an official source (e.g., public health agency, government agency) in the country where the vaccine was administered.”
“Fully vaccinated” means the traveler has received “all doses recommended in the primary set of Covid-19 vaccine” at least two weeks before travel.
It is not necessary to have had a booster jab.
From a British perspective, the NHS Covid pass, available free of charge from the NHS in the traveller’s nation of UK, is sufficient. All checks are carried out by the transatlantic airline, which is required to “match name and date of birth to confirm the passenger is the same person listed on the proof of vaccination” and verify that the traveler is fully vaccinated.
At the end of Thursday, May 11, the American “Covid-19 public health emergency” officially ends. From the next day, international travelers will no longer have to prove to airlines that they have received Covid vaccines.
Why have the restrictions been in place for so long?
The White House says it has helped “slow the spread of new variants entering the country and allow our health care system time to effectively manage access to care in the face of an increase in cases and hospitalizations.”
More than a million Americans have died of Covid-19 since the pandemic began in early 2020. As recently as last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 1,000 people have died in the previous seven days, although this was the lowest weekly death toll from the virus since March 2020.
Announcing the change, a White House spokesperson said: “Covid continues to be a problem. But our health care system or public health resources are much better able to respond to the threat that Covid poses to our country and do so in a way that doesn’t cause access to care problems for Americans.
What does the travel industry say?
A spokesperson for Virgin Atlantic, which flies to 12 American destinations, said: “Easing vaccination requirements for foreign nationals removes barriers to frictionless travel in the United States, our heartland for nearly 40 years. It will give a boost to transatlantic customer demand as a busy summer approaches.”
The US-based Global Business Travel Association has also welcomed the change. Suzanne Neufang, chief executive, said: “It will also help free up critical time and resources, such as global staff and airline and airport operations, helping to improve the passenger experience.”
What will be the effect?
Expect even stronger demand across the Atlantic, particularly in the near future i.e. late May and June. Usually these months are significantly cheaper for transatlantic flights in economy class, with less pressure on seats and fares than in July and August. But with millions of potential travelers suddenly allowed to travel, they could prove busy and expensive.
A landmark British Airways return flight from London Heathrow to New York on 1 June for a week is currently on sale for £554 return, with hand luggage only. A month later, the lowest fare is £768 return.
Before the Covid pandemic, fares were significantly lower.
Some other bureaucracy?
Visitors to the United States must comply with applicable immigration regulations, including the presentation of a valid visa or an ESTA (the online permit to enter America).
Which countries still have Covid travel restrictions?
Until last month, the UK and US imposed testing requirements on people arriving from mainland China, but these have now been lifted.
China is the main outlier in terms of Covid travel rules. While Chinese nationals can now travel overseas, international tourists are still not allowed. Anyone traveling for work or visiting family needs a negative PCR test within 48 hours of boarding a flight to China. You may also be tested upon arrival. (These restrictions do not apply in Hong Kong, for which testing is not required, regardless of your vaccination status.)
The other very large nation with restrictions in place is Brazil, where unvaccinated travelers must test negative for Covid within 24 hours before flying. Keep your NHS vaccination records on your phone and, ideally, printed out, because the Foreign Office warns: “There are additional local requirements to show proof of vaccination to enter certain venues…including hotels, restaurants and gyms.”