From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States has issued a series of restrictions on entry to the country. The latest restriction, effective January 26, 2021, mandates proof of a negative COVID-19 test or proof of recovery from COVID prior to boarding any flight to the United States. As set forth below, it differs from the existing patchwork of COVID-related travel restrictions, in that it applies to all travelers age two or older–including US citizens and US permanent residents.

The new COVID testing mandate for all international air travelers was ordered by the Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC). The CDC’s Order, issued on January 12, 2021, is in response to the identification of a highly-transmissible variant form of the COVID virus. While the CDC Order impacts travel to the United States from abroad, it is a public health measure—not an immigration restriction. This is an important differentiation from the earlier Presidential Proclamations suspending travel. As a public health measure, the CDC’s order applies to all passengers, without consideration of US immigration status or immigration-based exceptions.

Air Carriers Responsible for Verifying Passenger COVID Documentation

The CDC’s order is directed at airlines and aircraft operators, through COVID testing or recovery verification requirements applicable to each passenger. Passengers will have to present acceptable testing or recovery proof prior to boarding. In addition, passengers have to complete an attestation to the CDC verifying their test or recovery results.

Note: The documentation, whether for a negative pre-departure test or proof of recovery must contain the name and date of birth of the passenger matching the passenger’s travel documents. Travelers with name variations must be mindful of this requirement to avoid being refused boarding.

Documentation Requirements for Negative Pre-Departure Test:

  1. Passengers must provide the air carrier with paper or electronic verification of a negative COVID-19 test result taken within 3 calendar days prior to departure.
  2. The test must be a viral detection test. This is defined as nucleic acid amplification (NAAT) or viral antigen test.
  3. The test results must state either: Negative, SARS-Co V-2 RNA Not Detected, SARS-CoV-2 Antigen Not Detected, or COVID-19 Not Detected.

Documentation Requirements for Proof of Recovery:

  1. Passengers must provide a written or electronic positive test result taken within the three- month (90 day) period preceding the flight.
  2. The test result must state either: Positive, SARS-CoV-2 RNA Detected, SARS-CoV-2 Antigen Detected, or COVID-19 Detected.
  3. In addition, a recovered passenger must present a signed letter from a licensed health care provider or public health official confirming that the passenger has been cleared for travel. This must be on letterhead, with the provider’s name, address and contact information.

Attestation Requirements

The CDC’s order requires passengers to attest to the CDC verifying their test or recovery results. The attestation, which contains designated wording and advisements, is collected by the airline or aircraft operator prior to boarding. Lest anyone be tempted to falsify their documentation, the attestation warns of potential consequences, including criminal penalties, for failure to provide complete and accurate information.

Scope of CDC Order and Other Considerations

  1. The Order applies to all passengers, age two and above. There are exceptions for crew members following specified protocols, COVID patients transported with CDC authorization, and federal law enforcement and military personnel. All other passengers, including US citizens and US permanent residents, must comply.
  2. The Order applies to all flights into the United States, including private and charter flights.
  3. The Order does not apply to travel within the United States or travel from a US territory or possession. Territories and possessions include: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
  4. For connecting flights, the documentation requirements apply to the initial flight if a) the connecting flights were booked together, b) each connection is 24 hours or less and, c) the passenger receives safety protocol instructions for the connections.

Relationship to Other COVID Travel Restrictions

The CDC’s January 12, 2021 Order replaces the CDC’s December 25, 2020 order requiring negative pre-departure COVID testing requirements for travelers coming from the UK. It does not, however, override or replace any of the Presidential Proclamations suspending travel due to COVID-related health or economic factors. Similarly, it does not override travel restriction agreements between the United States, Canada and Mexico.

It is notable that, on January 18, 2021,  President Trump terminated the Presidential Proclamation suspending travel from the Schengen Area, UK, Ireland and Brazil, citing the CDC’s order . The termination would not exempt passengers from the above described proof of COVID test results. The termination carries an effective date of January 26, aligning with the effective date of the CDC’s travel order. This termination is expected to be short-lived, given widely-reported statements by the incoming Biden Administration regarding their intent to reinstate the suspension. We have provided information and guidance on these restrictions as part of Steptoe’s COVID-19 Resource Center

Expectations for the Future

In time, the CDC’s broad public health initiative may pave the way for resumption of increased international air travel. However, the Biden Administration has signaled a cautious approach to such changes, based upon scientific and medical input. Thus, for the time being, the CDC’s testing or recovery documentation requirement is in addition to, not instead of, the existing COVID-related travel suspensions and other restrictions that must be navigated by would-be travelers to the United States.