A guide to the new COVID-19 testing rules for travel to the US

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ordered that all travelers flying to the U.S. from abroad will have to show proof of negative Covid-19 tests before boarding their flight starting Jan. 26. The CDC said preflight testing is necessary as Covid-19 cases continue to soar and new, more contagious strains of the virus emerge around the world.

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Here is what you need to know about the new protocols before you take a trip.

Who does it affect?

The order applies to everyone traveling to the U.S. on international flights, including U.S. citizens. You will need to show negative test results even if you are flying on a private jet or charter flight. There are exceptions for children under age 2, airline crews, and federal law-enforcement agents and members of the military traveling for duty.

What countries are covered?

All of them. Passengers need to show proof of a negative test when traveling to the U.S. from any country, including Mexico and the Caribbean. Airlines can seek temporary waivers for certain countries where testing supplies are inadequate, but carriers haven’t yet said which countries might fall into this category.

The universal testing requirement goes into effect Jan. 26. People arriving from the United Kingdom already have been subject to similar testing requirements that went into effect in December following the emergence of a new coronavirus strain there.

What kind of test will I need, and when? What happens if I don’t have my results?
U.S.-bound air travelers must get tested no more than three days before flying and bring written or electronic proof of the results. Airlines can accept both PCR and rapid antigen tests. If you don’t have the documentation with you, airlines won’t allow you to board, according to the CDC’s order.

Airlines are still working out the exact protocols they will use to check test results. Customers coming from the U.K. on United Airlines show test results in the lobby before security, but the details might not be the same for other countries, a United Airlines Holdings Inc. spokeswoman said.

What if I have been vaccinated?

Even if you have been vaccinated for Covid-19, you still will need to show proof of a negative test.

What if I recently had Covid-19 and got better?

If you have tested positive for Covid-19 in the past three months but no longer have symptoms, the CDC doesn’t recommend getting tested again. If you are in this group and have met the criteria to end isolation, the CDC says you can travel as long as you have written permission from a health-care provider or public-health official. Bring your positive test result and the doctor’s letter to show the airline in lieu of a negative test result.

Does this mean the U.S. has lifted bans on most travel from Europe, the U.K. and other countries?

Not at this point. Airlines have been pushing the government to drop those bans, especially now that testing requirements are going into effect. The government hasn’t taken any action on that though, so people who aren’t U.S. citizens or permanent residents can’t come to the U.S. from most of Europe, the U.K., Brazil, China and Iran. Likewise, many countries don’t allow travelers to enter from the U.S., or continue to impose lengthy quarantine requirements on arrival.

What if I need to change my travel plans now?

Airlines already have done away with most international change fees and are adding more flexibility for people who need to adjust their plans and get to the U.S. before the new testing requirements go into effect.

American Airlines Group Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc., for instance, will allow people to rebook international tickets to the U.S. that had been scheduled through Feb. 9, as long as new travel starts on or before Jan. 25. That means you can rebook to fly before testing is required without paying higher last-minute fares.

Do I need to get tested again or quarantine when I get back to the U.S.?

The CDC recommends people get a second test three to five days after travel and stay home for seven days (or 10 days without a second test). Testing on its own isn’t a substitute for social distancing and wearing face masks, CDC officials said.

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