U.S.: Biden Administration to Relax Travel Proclamations and Allow Entry to Vaccinated Travelers

September 23, 2021


On 20 September 2021, the Biden administration announced it would simultaneously relax travel restrictions for foreign nationals traveling from China, Iran, the Schengen Area, the U.K., Brazil, Ireland, South Africa, and India, and impose new travel requirements for travelers from all other countries.

The Biden administration will start requiring all adult travelers to provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19 and provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of boarding their flight to the United States. This change in policy is scheduled to go into effect in November 2021.

With respect to unvaccinated American citizens, foreign national children who cannot be vaccinated, or individuals who obtain an exemption to the vaccination requirement, they will be required to provide proof of a negative test within one day of departure and provide proof they have purchased a viral test to be taken after arrival. Limited exemptions to the vaccination requirement will be granted to children, vaccine trial participation, and those who can demonstrate an important reason for travel and lack of access to vaccination in a timely manner (e.g., refugees from conflict zones). Furthermore, the CDC will issue a contact tracing order requiring airlines to collect certain contact data for all international air travelers, and the administration confirmed the mask mandate will continue through Jan. 18, 2022.

While this is a welcome change for travelers previously subject to the geographic travel restrictions, the impact is far greater on the rest of the world that will now be subject to a strict vaccination requirement. Previously, travelers from the majority of Central and South America, almost all of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East could travel freely in and out of the United States with only the pre-departure testing requirement. Now, many of these individuals may be restricted from entering the U.S. due to the lack of availability of vaccines in those areas.

Finally, a key aspect of this policy appears unresolved: which vaccines will qualify? Looking towards countries in the EU, many of which have already had a vaccinated traveler exemption for months, the only vaccines that qualify for their exemption are Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca – all of which have been approved by the European Medicines Agency.

If the United States took a similar approach – only Pfizer, Modern and Johnson & Johnson have been approved by the FDA. AstraZeneca has not been approved in the United States, and AstraZeneca has been in widespread use across Europe (the EU released a statement pushing the United States to ensure AstraZeneca-vaccinated travelers could travel to the U.S.). Furthermore, the United States has not approved the Chinese or Russian-made vaccines, which have been in use in the Middle East, South America, Africa, and Asia. For instance, Sinovac and AstraZeneca are the only vaccines available in Brazil. In short, this new policy could end up restricting more travel than it permits.

The Biden administration provided the following FAQ regarding this policy:

Q: Why have you kept the previous policies in place for so long? Why make this change now? What changed between now and January when you took over this system and kept it in place for 8 months?

  • Maintaining the prior system while vaccinations ramped up around the world was the most effective way to keep Americans safe. Now, nearly 6 billion shots have been given globally and dozens of countries have strong vaccination rates. This new system allows us to implement strict protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from passengers flying internationally into the United States, by requiring that adult foreign nationals traveling to the United States be fully vaccinated.

Q: Why are you announcing it now if it won’t be active until November? What are next steps?

  • Announcing the changes now gives the appropriate amount of time for strong implementation. Airlines and other private businesses need some lead time to make business decisions about travel later in the year and to prepare for putting the changes in place. CDC will be replacing the current Global Testing Order with an updated approach that requires vaccination for foreign nationals, tightens the pre-departure testing requirements, and adds a post-arrival testing requirement for unvaccinated travelers. They will also be issuing a new Contact Tracing Order. DHS, FAA, and State will also be working to develop the directives and processes for implementing these changes via the boarding process with airlines and through consular affairs offices. So, we are going to take the time to get this right.

Q: Won’t this change increase travel to the United States? Doesn’t that add to risk at a time when hospitals are overflowing in many parts of the country?

  • This enhances the protections for the American people by requiring ALL foreign nationals to be fully vaccinated before boarding a plane to come to the United States, with very limited exceptions. It will also require American citizens and residents who are not vaccinated to test within a day of boarding a plane rather than three days, which will provide stronger protections against infected people boarding planes.

Q: Isn’t this just an admission that the travel restrictions do not make sense?

  • Maintaining the prior system while vaccinations ramped up around the world was the most effective way to keep Americans safe. Now, nearly 6 billion shots have been given globally and dozens of countries have strong vaccination rates. This new system allows us to implement strict protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from passengers flying internationally into the United States, by requiring that adult foreign nationals traveling to the United States be fully vaccinated.

Q: What proof of vaccination status will you accept?

  • We will be requiring proof of vaccination status to be presented before boarding. The type of proof required will be worked out as the detailed implementation plan is developed in the coming weeks.

Q: What vaccines will you accept?

  • We will look to CDC to guide which vaccines will be accepted, as part of their standard role in determining who is considered fully vaccinated for the purposes of recommended or required international travel protocols.

Q: Are you planning to end Title 19 restrictions on non-essential travel at the land border?

  • Title 19 is being extended for another month through October 21, and we do not have further updates to that policy at this time.

Q: What are you doing to step up mitigation at the land border, if anything? Or instead are you going to have an inconsistency where unvaccinated people can cross the land border but not get on a plane?

  • Today, the administration is announcing a move to a safer and more harmonized global approach to international inbound air travel, and our focus will be on implementing those changes. We do not have any updates to the land border policies at this time.

Q: Who will be excepted from the full vaccination requirement for foreign nationals?

  • The exceptions will be very narrow, such as for children; COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial participants; and, humanitarian exceptions for people traveling for an important reason and who lack access to vaccination in a timely manner. But let me stress that these will be very limited exceptions. And we will be requiring that people who receive these very limited exceptions agree to get vaccinated upon arrival.

Q: Won’t requiring vaccination be highly inequitable, especially for countries with low vaccine access?

  • We believe that the vast majority of people who can travel internationally to the U.S. will be able to access a vaccine. For those who have a compelling and urgent reason to come to the United States and are not able to access a vaccine in a timely manner prior to departure, we will have in place very limited exceptions for which they can apply. And we will be requiring that people who receive these very limited exceptions agree to get vaccinated upon arrival.

Q: What additional mitigation steps are you taking beyond the vaccination requirement?

  • We have extended the masking order through January 18, 2022. CDC will also be stepping up pre-departure and post-arrival testing requirements. CDC will also be putting in place a contact tracing order.

Q: Why not take down 212(f) now?

  • We are taking down 212(f) for the countries to which it applies today concurrent with the early November start of the new system.

Q: When will the policies be finalized and made public?

  • We anticipate these policies will be effective by early November.

This information was prepared by Greenberg Traurig and published with their permission. The blog was originally published here.