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US travel rules: can I visit the States and what are the testing and entry requirements?

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The US reopened to the world on 8 November – albeit just to fully vaccinated travellers – after closing its borders for almost 20 months from the start of the pandemic.

Now, less than a month later, the Biden Administration is adding to its entry rules for travellers in response to the emergence of the omicron variant of Covid-19, which has so far been detected in more than 20 countries around the world, including the UK.

This week has seen a slow trickle of information about the US’s intended rule changes, which will come into force on 6 December.

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So is it safe to book a winter break or holiday to the US at the moment?

Here’s everything we know so far.

What are the current rules for arrivals to the US?

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Currently, fully vaccinated Britons can travel to the US, and flights are back up and running – if not back to full pre-pandemic capacity.

Visitors arriving this week, on or before 5 December, must complete the usual ESTA visa application before travel and arrive with their proof of vaccination (the NHS Covid Pass) plus a negative Covid test result from an antigen or a PCR test.

This must be administered by a medical provider with the results sent to you electronically, and taken within the 72 hours before departure.

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Proof of vaccination must show that you had your second jab of a WHO-approved vaccine at least 14 days before travel (all the official UK vaccines are approved).

All travellers must also fill in a “passenger disclosure” form, which has to be printed out and signed.

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Your airline is also entitled to ask for the following details, so have them to hand:

  • Full name, date of birth, email address, address while in the United States, primary contact phone number and a secondary or emergency contact number.
  • Airline name, flight number, city and time of departure and of arrival, and seat number.

Anyone who has been to one of eight African countries during the 14 days prior to their US trip – Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe – is currently barred from entering the US, regardless of vaccination status.

All unvaccinated international travellers are also banned at present, except those who qualify for a few very rare exemptions.

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Test results are not required from foreign visitors entering the country by land, nor from children aged under 18, who may travel with a fully vaccinated parent or guardian.

Do I need to take a test once in the US?

The US’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends, but does not insist, that fully vaccinated travellers “take a viral test within three to five days of arrival in the US”.

The test can be a swift lateral flow (antigen) test, and there is no obligation for the test to be medically supervised.

Which rules are changing this month for arrivals to the US?

From next week, travel rules will change slightly for entry to the US, according to the US Embassy website and a White House statement released on 2 December.

All foreign nationals arriving in the US from that time onward must take a Covid test within the 24 hours before departure, regardless of vaccination status, as opposed to the previous 72-hour window.

Proof of having recovered from Covid-19 in the past 90 days is also accepted, but the NHS does not provide proof of recovery certificates.

Further details are expected to emerge from the White House in the coming weeks after it included this wording on international travel in its statement:

“Last month, the Administration implemented stronger international travel protocols, including requirements for foreign travellers to be fully vaccinated. The very day the WHO identified the new omicron variant, the Biden Administration took immediate steps to restrict travel from the countries in the region where it was confirmed to be spreading quickly.

“The President will announce additional steps to strengthen the safety of international travel as we face this new threat – just as we have faced those that have come before it.”

The ban on arrivals from the eight African countries listed above is already in place, as of 26 November, including tourists who have visited any of them within the past fortnight.

President Joe Biden described the ban as being designed “to give us time to get people to get protection. To be vaccinated and get the booster. That’s the reason for it.”

When is the change taking place?

While the White House statement describes the testing-window change as coming in “early next week”, the US Embassy’s website is reporting that it will kick in from 00.01am on Monday 6 December.

“Early next week, the United States will tighten pre-departure testing protocols by requiring all inbound international travellers to test within one day of departure globally, regardless of nationality or vaccination status,” reads the White House statement from 2 December.

How long will the new rules be in place?

The US government has not given a set timeframe for the new rules, leaving many to speculate that it may be an indefinite move to cope with new variants such as omicron.

If the US is acting in line with other countries in the world which are increasing their testing or vaccination requirements in response to omicron – such as Ireland, Spain and France – they will likely keep the new testing rules in place for at least several weeks until more is known about the variant, before reviewing them.

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