The Biden administration announced this week that, beginning November 8, noncitizen, nonimmigrants traveling to the United States by air must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 except in limited circumstances. The presidential proclamation revokes earlier country-by-country travel bans and, instead, instates a uniform, vaccination-based international air travel policy. The administration’s new policy also contains updated COVID-19 testing and contact tracing requirements, including more stringent pre-departure COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated U.S. citizens and lawful permanent resident air travelers. The administration’s recent announcements only apply to international air travel; however, it has signaled that similar changes regarding land border travel will be forthcoming.
Under the new guidance, U.S. consulates abroad may issue nonimmigrant visas to unvaccinated foreign nationals; however, these individuals must comply with the vaccination mandate in order to board an aircraft bound for the United States. Additionally, the Department of State has cautioned that the presidential proclamation and rescission of regional travel bans do not mean that consulates abroad will be able to immediately schedule visa interviews for affected applicants.
Under the presidential proclamation, proof of full vaccination status for noncitizen, nonimmigrant travelers to the United States will be required to board an aircraft. Airlines are charged with reviewing travelers’ proof of COVID-19 vaccination to (a) determine that the record was issued by an official source in the country of vaccination, (b) confirm that the personal identifiers (name and date of birth) on the proof of vaccination match the identifiers on the passport, and (c) confirm that the passenger meets the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definition of “fully vaccinated.” An individual is “fully vaccinated” if it has been at least two weeks since a person received the final dose of an accepted COVID-19 vaccine. For purposes of travel to the United States, accepted COVID-19 vaccines include FDA-approved or authorized vaccines, World Health Organization (WHO) emergency use listed (EUL) vaccines, and “mix and match” vaccines or vaccine combinations listed in technical instructions by the CDC.
The proclamation does not apply to airline crew members and contains the following primary, limited exceptions to its general vaccination requirement for nonimmigrant foreign national air travelers:
- Children under the age of 18.
- Individuals traveling on non-tourist visas who are citizens of countries with low vaccine availability as defined by the CDC.
- Individuals participating in certain COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials.
- Individuals for whom receiving an accepted COVID-19 vaccine is medically contraindicated as determined by a licensed physician.
- Individuals entering or transiting the United States for certain diplomatic or foreign government activities or those who have been granted an exception by the CDC for humanitarian or other emergency reasons.
Airlines or other aircraft operators must confirm that people falling under one of these exceptions present documentation proving the exception is met. Religious or moral objections to vaccination are not recognized under any of these exceptions. Excepted air travelers must attest that they will comply with applicable public health requirements once in the United States, including, where applicable, a requirement to become fully vaccinated against COVID-19 within 60 days of arrival in the United States.
The air travel vaccination requirement does not apply to U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. However, the new policy does impose more stringent COVID-19 testing requirements on unvaccinated U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents as well as nonimmigrants excepted from the new vaccination requirement. These individuals aged 2 and older must now present documentation of a negative COVID-19 test collected no more than one calendar day prior to travel. For vaccinated travelers, including U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents as well as nonimmigrants, the existing requirement of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of travel continues to apply, and children ages 2 to 17 traveling with a fully vaccinated adult can also continue to test three days prior to departure. Regardless of vaccination status, passengers can present documentation of recovery from COVID-19 to satisfy testing requirements. Additionally, individuals seeking admission to the United States as immigrants must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before issuance of an immigrant visa.
Informed by public health consensus regarding the paramount importance of vaccination in the global pandemic response, the presidential proclamation and accompanying CDC orders signal the beginning of a vaccination-based international air travel policy for the United States and the end of piecemeal country-by-country travel bans. These changes will be welcome news to the many travelers from Europe, Brazil, the U.K., Ireland, South Africa, India, and China who have been delayed in conducting business and making investments in the U.S. because of the regional travel bans.