Planning a vacation has never been so complicated. With the delta variant spreading around the world, travelers are forced to navigate an ever-changing set of rules. Here’s what to know before you fly, take a cruise or check into a hotel.
This article was updated on September 4, 2021.
one are the days of planning a carefree getaway on the fly. Nearly two years into the pandemic, it’s now painfully clear that we’re going to be dealing with Covid-related travel restrictions for months and years to come. So it’s essential to do some basic pre-trip homework to assess not only the risk of traveling but what, if any, protocols are in place—not just in a specific destination but along the entire journey.
At the same time, a pattern is emerging, where travel is easier and less restrictive for those who are fully vaccinated. In some major American cities, for instance, vaccine mandates are already in place for indoor dining, sports venues and entertainment arenas. And in many countries around the world, a person’s vaccination status determines whether the welcome mat is rolled out.
U.S. Covid-19 Restrictions
Americans are paying close attention to the delta variant and beginning to reconsider fall and winter travel plans based on rising Covid-19 infection rates across the country. Sadly, some of the highest rates in the world are right here at home. If the United States were an international destination, more than 80% of states would qualify for a Level 4 “Do Not Travel” designation by the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC).
For travel within the U.S., CDC guidance depends on an individual’s vaccination status. The agency recommends that Americans delay all travel until they are fully vaccinated. If that is not possible, the CDC asks that unvaccinated travelers take a Covid-19 viral test one to three days before departure. Then, during the trip, travelers should practice social distancing and wear a face mask while indoors in public settings and in crowded venues. Lastly, the CDC recommends that unvaccinated travelers get a viral test three to five days after returning home and self-quarantine for one week.
In contrast, the CDC has determined that fully vaccinated individuals can travel safely within the United States without testing. They should still wear a face mask while indoors in public settings.
Beyond the federal government’s recommendations, regulations for wearing face masks vary wildly from state to state and locality to locality. Right now, seven states—Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington—as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico require people, regardless of vaccination status, to wear masks in indoor public places. Six more states—California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, New York and Vermont—currently have indoor mask mandates in place for the unvaccinated.
As Covid-19 cases keep rising, surveys show that a majority of Americans back mask mandates. Even in red states, it’s not unusual for large cities such as Atlanta and St. Louis to have mandates in place for indoor dining and entertainment venues. Similarly, more restaurants, bars and stadiums around the country are implementing vaccine and mask mandates without edicts from their local governments.
The bottom line? Always check on the Covid policies in place at your destination, both at the state and local level, before leaving home.
International Travel Covid-19 Restrictions
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also regularly updates its international travel health notices to provide guidance for Americans considering a trip abroad. In August alone, the agency added more than three dozen countries to the Level 4 “Do Not Travel” list reserved for places with a “very high risk” of Covid-19 transmission. Some of the latest additions include major tourism draws such as France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Switzerland and over a dozen Caribbean nations. It is worth noting, of course, that many of the 81 nations on that list have lower overall infection rates than the United States.
All international Covid-19 restrictions are dictated by the country you are visiting. Many destinations are using vaccine mandates, testing requirements, mask requirements and curfews—or a combination thereof—to reduce the spread of Covid. But be aware that protocols can change at any time. As with domestic travel, always check your destination’s regulations in the weeks and days before leaving home.
Returning to the United States from abroad also requires foresight and preparation. Since January 2021, all travelers must test negative for Covid-19 within 72 hours of entering the U.S. There are many reports in recent weeks of travelers—both vaccinated and unvaccinated—testing positive within the last three days of their trip. Obviously, this can completely upend re-entry plans as travelers will have to delay a return until they test negative. During this window, travelers must remain in the destination country at their own expense, typically under some kind of quarantine or isolation orders.
Canada has remained steadfast in imposing strict Covid restrictions for travel. The country currently boasts one of the highest vaccination rates in the world as well as a much lower Covid-19 infection rate than in the United States. The CDC lists Canada under a Level 3 travel health notice, which indicates a “high risk” for Covid-19 — though the overall transmission rate is more than six times lower than that of the United States.
Since August 9, fully vaccinated American travelers are welcome to visit Canada by using the ArriveCAN app to prove their Covid-19 health status; testing is required before arrival and at the border. (More: Canada Border Service)
Mexico is currently at a Level 3 travel health notice, which indicates a “high risk” for Covid-19. While the U.S.-Mexico land border is closed for nonessential travel through at least September 21, air travel remains open. Americans are not required to provide proof of vaccination status or a negative PCR test and there is no quarantine. Most resorts ask guests to fill out simple health questionnaires based on the honor system. (More: Mexican Covid-19 Monitoring)
All islands in the Caribbean are either at Level 3 (“high risk”) or Level 4 (“very high risk”), according to CDC’s risk-assessment metrics. Last month, the “Do Not Travel” list expanded to include Aruba, the Bahamas, Curaçao, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Martinique, Puerto Rico, St. Barts, St. Lucia, St. Martin/St. Maarten and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Covid-19 restrictions for travelers can vary greatly from one Caribbean island to another. Here are the protocols for some of the most popular Caribbean destinations for American travelers:
The Bahamas: Travelers must complete the Bahamas Travel Health Visa application at least 48 hours prior to arrival. All travelers, including those who are fully vaccinated, are required to upload proof of a negative Covid-19 test taken within five days of arrival. (More: Bahamas Travel Updates)
Dominican Republic: There is no vaccine mandate, Covid testing or quarantine requirement. Airports and ports of entry choose random travelers for breath tests. Travelers who present a vaccination record card or a recent negative PCR test are exempted from the random test. (More: Dominican Republic Tourism)
Jamaica: Travelers must complete a travel authorization form at least seven days before arrival and take a Covid-19 molecular or antigen test within three days of arrival. While in Jamaica, tourists are restricted to hotels, restaurants, shops and attractions within the “resilient corridor.” (More: Visit Jamaica)
Turks and Caicos: All visitors 16 and older must be fully vaccinated. In addition, travelers must present a negative test for a Covid-19 test taken within three days of arrival, and have travel insurance that covers Covid-19 medical costs. There is a curfew from 1 a.m. to 5 p.m. through October 31, 2021. (More: Visit Turks & Caicos Islands)
The CDC currently has all of Western Europe at a Level 3 (“high risk”) or Level 4 (“very high risk”) for Covid-19, with one exception. Germany is at a Level 2 (“moderate”) risk level, likely as a result of some of Europe’s strictest Covid-19 travel rules. Eastern Europe is more of a mixed bag, with some countries deemed low risk and others categorized as high.
On August 30, the European Union announced it was removing the United States from its “safe travel” list, recommending that only fully vaccinated American tourists be allowed to visit its 27 member countries. In reality, the E.U.’s guidance is non-binding, so individual countries in the E.U. bloc can decide impose their own sets of restrictions. What is emerging is a messy patchwork of different rules and regulations across the continent.
Some countries, like Estonia and Sweden, have reacted by banning all non-essential travel by Americans regardless of vaccination status. Other countries, like Denmark and the Netherlands, have clamped down by banning unvaccinated travelers. The Netherlands has also introduced a mandatory quarantine for vaccinated travelers. In general, unvaccinated U.S. travelers now face more rigorous restrictions including frequent testing and quarantines upon entry, if they are allowed to enter at all.
In addition, many countries have developed their own additional protocols by re-introducing curfews, quarantines and testing requirements. Some nations are also requiring “green passes” to enter indoor restaurants and bars and to enter cultural venues. Typically, these digital certificates require proof of vaccination, a recent negative Covid-19 test result or proof of recovery from the illness.
Travelers should also consult their destination’s embassy or health authority for the most up-to-date travel instructions. Here’s a rundown of the protocols for entering the most-visited European countries for American travelers:
Italy: All travelers from the U.S., regardless of vaccination status, must present a negative Covid-19 test taken within three days of their arrival in Italy. Unvaccinated travelers must also quarantine for five days after arrival and then get tested again. Tourists must also fill out a digital passenger locator form, which allows contact tracers to identify viral clusters in the event of a breakout. (More: Italian Health Ministry)
France: The United States is on France’s “green list.” That means fully vaccinated U.S. travelers may enter the country without testing, while unvaccinated adult travelers and all travelers under age 12 must present a negative PCR or antigen test taken less than 72 hours before arrival. Individuals who have previously contracted Covid-19 may present a certificate of recovery dated between 11 days and six months prior to arrival. While in France, travelers must download and activate the TousAntiCovid mobile application, which requires proof of Covid health status, to dine at restaurants, bars and cafes and to enter top tourist attractions and other indoor venues. (More: French Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Spain: To enter Spain, all travelers must submit health information to the Spain Travel Health portal, which generates a QR code to show when entering the country. The system also sends each traveler an email with the QR code. (More: Spain Travel Health FAQs)
The Netherlands: As of September 4, the Netherlands considers the U.S. to be a very high-risk area. Only fully vaccinated Americans may enter the country and then they must comply with a mandatory quarantine requirement. In addition, travelers also must present a negative Covid-19 PCR test or a negative antigen test performed within 24 hours prior to departure for the Netherlands. (More: Netherlands Entry Checklist)
Germany: The United States is currently classified as a “high risk” area for Covid-19. Travelers who have been in the U.S. within 10 days of entering the Germany must be fully vaccinated or able to demonstrate why travel is essential. Travelers who can prove they were previously infected with Covid through a positive PCR test taken between 28 days and six months before arrival, and who show no relevant symptoms, are considered to be fully recovered. Travelers must fill out their information on a digital registry and carry the confirmation when entering the Germany. (More: German Embassy)
Greece: Before entering Greece, U.S. travelers must complete the passenger locator form and show a negative PCR test result for Covid-19, performed within 72 hours of arrival, or a negative antigen test result performed within 48 hours of arrival. (More: U.S. Embassy)
United Kingdom: The United States is currently on the United Kingdom’s “amber list.” Since August 2, fully vaccinated American travelers do not have to quarantine or take a Day 8 Covid test (if staying more than a week). Before arriving, however, all travelers must present a recent negative Covid-19 test; book and pay for necessary future tests; and complete a passenger locator form. (More: Government portals for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland)
Central & South America
The CDC currently has all of Central and South America at a Level 3 (“high risk”) or Level 4 (“very high risk”) for Covid-19, with the exception of Venezuela, whose status is shown as “unknown.” Here are the protocols for the top destinations for American travelers in Central and South America:
Argentina: The Argentinian government has a travel ban in place. Travelers who are not a resident in Argentina, including U.S. citizens, are not permitted to enter the country. (More: U.S. Embassy)
Brazil: Commercial flights between the U.S. and Brazil are running. Travelers must fill out a Traveler’s Health Declaration form and show a recent negative result for a Covid-19 test. (More: U.S. Embassy)
Peru: The government of Peru has a Covid-19 health emergency in place through September 2, 2021. All travelers must fill out an online health affidavit and must present a molecular Covid test (within 72 hours) or antigen test (within 24 hours) with a negative result prior to boarding a flight to Peru. Double facemasks are now required to enter many establishments, including shopping centers, markets, supermarkets, department stores, and other crowded places. (More: US Embassy)
Costa Rica: Travelers must fill out a digital Health Pass and enter their vaccination status within 72 hours prior to arrival. Unvaccinated tourists are required to purchase travel insurance that covers lodging in case of quarantine and medical expenses in the event of contracting Covid-19. Otherwise, there are no testing or quarantines required to enter Costa Rica. (More: Visit Costa Rica)
Asia and Oceania
Broadly speaking, Asian countries have been among the most cautious in their re-opening plans. Most destinations that are accepting visitors tend to require both testing and quarantining.
Still, like in other parts of the world, there can be wild differences in travel protocols on a country-to-country basis across the world’s largest continent and Oceania. Some major destinations—including India, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand—are closed to U.S. travelers. But a few destinations, like the Maldives, have been welcoming back American travelers for more than a year now. Here’s the status in some of the most popular destinations in Asia and Oceania:
Japan: Travel for tourism and most other short-term purposes is still not permitted, and there is no indication that this will change any time soon. Visa-free travel is suspended. (More: U.S. Embassy)
Australia: U.S. citizens are not permitted to enter Australia through at least mid-December. (More: U.S. Embassy)
New Zealand: U.S. citizens are not permitted to travel to New Zealand at this time. (More: U.S. Embassy)
Hong Kong: As of August 20, Hong Kong moved U.S. to its “high risk” category, which means that American travelers are denied entry unless they live in Hong Kong. (More: U.S. Embassy)
Thailand: It’s necessary to apply for a Visa and Certificate of Entry at least 15 days prior to departing for Thailand. In addition, travelers must show a negative Covid test result taken within three days of arrival and undergo quarantine for 14 days after arrival regardless of vaccination status. (More: U.S. Embassy)
Singapore: U.S. citizens cannot enter Singapore for short-term tourist visits at this time. (More: U.S. Embassy)
The Maldives: There is no mandatory quarantine but pre-arrival testing within 96 hours of departure for the Maldives is required for all travelers, regardless of vaccination status. (More: Maldives Tourism)
Israel: To visit Israel, U.S. citizens must apply in advance for an entry permit which requires disclosure of vaccination status. In addition, travelers must show a negative result from a Covid-19 test taken within 72 days of arrival. A quarantine requirement is in place, with possible exemptions or shortened times. (More: U.S. Embassy)
The CDC’s map of Africa currently resembles a patchwork quilt, with countries at varying risk levels. Despite a rise in Covid-19 cases in parts of Africa, most of the continent has reopened to tourism. Here’s a look at protocols for some of the top destinations:
Egypt: Travelers from the U.S. must have proof of a negative PCR test taken at a maximum of 96 hours before their flight leaves for Egypt. Note that travelers must present paper copies of the test results; digital copies will not be accepted. Anyone who tests positive for Covid-19 while in Egypt is required to quarantine for an additional 14 days. (More: U.S. Embassy)
South Africa: All travelers need to present a negative Covid-19 test result taken less than 72 hours from the time of departure; those who arrive without this proof are required to remain in mandatory quarantine at their own cost. All travelers must download and activate the Covid Alert South Africa mobile app. There is a nationwide curfew in South Africa from 10 pm to 4 am daily. (More: U.S. Embassy)
Morocco: There is a “Health State of Emergency” in effect until at least October 31, 2021. The United States is on Morocco’s “List A,” which means American travelers must present proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of boarding a flight to Morocco, and they must complete and sign a health form. Once there, Morocco has a nationwide curfew between 11 p.m. and 4:30 a.m. (More: Visit Morocco)
Covid-19 Restrictions By Transportation Type
The CDC’s face mask order applies to all public transportation in the United States and U.S. territories. The restriction also covers indoor areas in transportation hubs such as airports, bus and ferry terminals, train and subway stations, etc.
For flights within the United States, there is neither a vaccine mandate nor a requirement for pre-flight Covid testing. All travelers are required, however, to wear face masks inside airports and aboard an aircraft.
For international air travel, Covid-related rules are largely determined by the destination country. Pre-arrival testing and vaccine status verification are now commonplace before entering many foreign destinations. Rules can change quickly, however, and travelers should check the individual country’s health protocols in the week leading up to an international flight to stay up to date. (See International Travel Covid-19 Restrictions, above.)
Earlier this month, a trio of U.S. airlines—United Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines—announced vaccine mandates for their employees. At the same time, Alaska Airlines signaled that it may also issue a vaccine mandate after the vaccines become fully authorized. Since then, the Pfizer vaccine has received full FDA authorization.
For cruises sailing from U.S. ports, Covid-19 requirements surrounding vaccination status, testing and mask wearing can vary. Before booking a cruise, travelers should ask about protocols for the cruise line, the specific ship and all of the ports of call along the itinerary. The CDC keeps a color-coded list of ships where passengers or crew have tested positive for Covid-19.
As of now, only Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH)—which operates Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises—requires 100% of crew and passengers to be fully vaccinated at least two weeks prior to sailing. This policy is in effect for sailings through at least December 31, 2021.
In early August, a U.S. judge ruled that NCLH-owned cruise lines can require passengers to show proof of vaccination status before boarding their ships in Florida — a blow to Governor Ron DeSantis’ much-hyped but unpopular law banning so-called vaccine passports. In her ruling, the judge agreed that the Florida law jeopardizes public health and is an unconstitutional infringement on Norwegian’s rights.
Since then, Royal Caribbean has altered its policy and will now require that all passengers ages 12 and older sailing from Florida must show proof of vaccination. Kids under 12 can cruise if they provide a negative Covid test result at boarding and follow onboard protocols that can include masking in indoor areas and being barred from certain areas of the ship. The cruise line was previously asking adult passengers booked on cruises out from Florida if they were vaccinated but not demanding proof.
For all other cruise lines sailing from U.S. ports, the specific Covid rules and their enforcement can differ by ship and by port. Travelers who want to be certain that their fellow passengers have shown proof of their vaccination status might want to consider sailing from a port outside Florida, where vaccinations are not mandated; otherwise, contact the cruise line directly for protocols for boarding, enjoying the ship and port excursions—but note that these rules can change at any moment. For example, when the Bahamas recently announced a vaccine mandate for visitors, cruise lines began requiring that passengers on Bahamian itineraries prove that they are vaccinated, in defiance of Florida’s ban on vaccine passports.
Take note that at least one major cruise line has shortened the window of time for taking a Covid-19 test before sailings out of U.S. ports. Carnival is changing its rules to require most passengers to show proof of a negative test taken within two days of sailing, instead of three.
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