Headed to Mexico or the Caribbean for the winter or over spring break? Get your proof of a negative test ready


Get ready to squeeze a coronavirus test into your pandemic vacation agenda.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that it would require airline passengers to show proof of a negative coronavirus test or recovery from COVID-19 before boarding an international flight to the U.S., effective Jan. 26. Airlines are required to deny boarding to those who don’t.

Currently, only travelers bound for the United States from the United Kingdom have to present a negative test, a requirement that has been in place only since Dec. 28.

International travel has been decimated by the pandemic, with most European countries off limits to Americans and U.S. restrictions keeping most international visitors away.

But pandemic vacationers have flocked to beach destinations that have reopened to tourists, including the Caribbean and Mexico. Some Caribbean destinations require proof of a negative coronavirus test to enter and have other restrictions, but Mexico does not.

The new requirement, which comes amid a surge in coronavirus cases in the U.S., means international travelers face another layer of restrictions.

A traveller stands in front of a flight information board at San Francisco International Airport during the coronavirus pandemic in San Francisco, Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020.
A traveller stands in front of a flight information board at San Francisco International Airport during the coronavirus pandemic in San Francisco, Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020.

What international travelers need to know about CDC’s new COVID-19 test rule

Question: Does the testing requirement apply to U.S. citizens?

Q: How can I prove I recovered from COVID-19?

Answer: Yes, it applies to all airline passengers ages 2 and older bound for the United States, including visitors, citizens and legal permanent residents.

Q: Do passengers on flights from the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico have to get tested?

A: No. U.S. territories are excluded from the CDC requirement.

Q: What kind of test do I need and when?

A: Travelers must get a viral test – antigen tests and nucleic acid amplification tests such as a PCR test qualify, but antibody tests don’t – no more than three days before their flight departs and bring paper or electronic proof to the airport. Those who have tested positive for the virus within the past three months before travel can bypass the test requirement if they bring proof they have recovered from the virus and are cleared to travel by a licensed health care provider or health official.

 Bring your positive test result and a letter from your health care provider or a public health official that says you have been cleared for travel, the CDC says.

Q: I’ve had a COVID-19 vaccine. Am I exempt?

A: No.

Q: Who is going to enforce this?

A: Airlines. They are still working out the details but will ask for proof at check-in. On flights from the U.K., for example, United Airlines asks for documentation in the ticket lobby. The CDC says passengers without negative test results or proof they have recovered from COVID-19 will be denied boarding. Those who provide false information are subject to criminal fines and imprisonment, the agency said.

Q: How am I going to find a reputable place to get tested in a foreign country?

A: Look for guidance from airlines, hotels, tourism bureaus and health care providers in the coming weeks. Travelers to Hawaii have to provide a negative test to enter the state and bypass a mandatory quarantine, and airlines and tourism officials have provide extensive details on testing options. American Airlines said it will not be providing tests for passengers.

Q: What if I take the test before my flight and I’m positive?

A: You will have an extended international vacation – in quarantine. At your own expense.

Q: How long will this requirement be in place?

A: No timeline was announced, but expect it to be in place as long as the virus is surging.

Q: I don’t want to travel given the new testing requirement. Can I get a refund on my airline ticket?

A: Probably not, unless you bought a pricey refundable ticket. Airlines have made their ticket-change policies much more flexible during the pandemic, but they are issuing refunds only if they cancel a flight, as required by the government. Travelers who cancel flights on their own generally receive credit for a future flight.

The good news on this front: You won’t have to pay a hefty ticket change fee when you go to use those funds. Major airlines last year eliminated change fees on international flights, except for passengers flying on basic economy tickets.

Q: I have tickets for a flight to/back to the United States right after the new testing requirement begins but want to depart earlier so I don’t have to get tested. What are my options?

A: So far, Delta Air LinesAmerican Airlines and United Airlines have issued specific travel waivers on this front. Delta and American said travelers scheduled to fly to the United States through Feb. 9 can change their ticket to dates on or before Jan. 25 without paying a fare difference as long as they purchased their tickets prior to the CDC announcement. United has the same terms but it is extending the option to passengers due to travel through Feb. 15. Ticket change fees are already waived on each of the airlines.


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