Everything we know so far about being considered ‘fully vaccinated’ for travel to the US

Sep 30, 2021

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Even if you’ve been immunized against COVID-19, is your vaccine good enough to travel to the U.S.?

The White House is increasingly facing more questions about who, exactly, will be allowed into the United States when it relaxes restrictions on international travel this fall.

We know there will be vaccination requirements for international arrivals. But that’s about all we know right now.

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Some people vaccinated abroad may not have been injected with a dose approved for use in the U.S. Not all COVID-19 vaccines available in the U.S. are used worldwide, and there also hasn’t been much information on whether or not the U.S., like some countries, will set an expiration date on vaccine validity. 

Here’s what we know so far about the U.S. stance on vaccinations for international arrivals.

What is considered ‘fully vaccinated’ for travel to the US?

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The White House will allow fully vaccinated travellers to enter the United States beginning in November.

International travellers will be allowed to enter the U.S. with proof of vaccination (unvaccinated U.S. citizens can still enter as well though they will face more strict testing requirements) and a negative COVID-19 test.

So far, the U.S. hasn’t said which criteria it would use to determine whether a person is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. And right now, there are more questions (and lots of confusion) than answers.

At a Sept. 20 news briefing, a reporter pressed the White House on how the U.S. would decide who would be considered vaccinated.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki didn’t specify what vaccines would be accepted or how proof of vaccination would work but said she expected that information to be available “as part of the implementation of the process in early November.”

Those are legitimate questions, especially as people begin planning their fall travel to the U.S.

Which COVID-19 vaccines will the US accept for travel?

(Photo by Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

There are three vaccines approved for use in the U.S.: Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a person is considered “fully vaccinated” if it’s been two weeks after the second dose in a two-dose series or two weeks after a single-dose vaccine.

The CDC also considers a person fully vaccinated if they were inoculated with a World Health Organization emergency-use dose. This could, in theory, open up travel to the U.S. to far more people than if only allowed for people injected with CDC-authorised doses.

WHO has been overseeing the COVAX program, or the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access. This is a global initiative working with governments and manufacturers to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines are available worldwide to higher-income and lower-income countries. WHO has approved seven vaccines for use worldwide, including the previously mentioned vaccines available in the U.S.

Vaccines approved for use by WHO include the two-dose AstraZeneca vaccine; Sinovac, which is used in China; and Covishield, which is used in India.

Right now, it appears travellers who were vaccinated with a CDC- or WHO-authorised vaccine should have the easiest time proving their status to enter the U.S.

The White House said that unvaccinated Americans (including children) would have to have proof of a negative test result taken within a day of their departure.

Another question is what this means for non-citizens who have received a COVID-19 vaccine that isn’t FDA authorised or approved or authorised by WHO. That would exclude vaccines like Russia’s EpiVacCorona, which is used in Russia, Belarus and Turkmenistan but isn’t FDA- or WHO-authorised, or China’s CanSino, which is available in 10 countries worldwide, including Mexico.

The CDC appeared to answer the question on Sept. 28 when it updated guidance to say impacted people “may start over with an FDA-authorised or approved COVID-19 vaccine.” The agency is also recommending that people who got vaccinated with a non-CDC or WHO authorised vaccine wait at least 28 days before getting an authorised vaccine, which will almost certainly complicate already tricky travel plans.

There are also questions about mixed doses, and the U.S. hasn’t said if it would impose vaccine validity rules as one country has already done.

Either way, the U.S. will have to figure out how to verify vaccine credentials for so many countries.

How to prove vaccination status

Unlike the European Union, with its EU COVID Certificate, the United States has no official vaccine passport. The Biden administration earlier this year that there would be no “federal mandate” for vaccine passports. Instead, it has left the decision up to the private sector and individual states. Several companies such as Clear, IBM and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) have created digital vaccine credentials that can be used for travel.

American travellers vaccinated in the U.S. should have no issue getting through with their paper CDC card, but we don’t know what will be accepted yet from other countries or if any state vaccine passport apps might work.

The CDC says travellers abroad should keep their vaccine documentation in the other country to show proof and recommends documenting their proof of vaccination with a primary care provider in the U.S.

Bottom line

International travellers may find the border to the U.S. isn’t as easy to cross as promised when it reopens later this fall. And even Americans may discover they’ll be considered unvaccinated and need to deal with day-of testing (which can be costly) to return home from abroad.

The White House said it intended to answer concerns about who would be considered fully vaccinated “hopefully sooner” than the November reopening.

But I can imagine that doesn’t bring much comfort right now to travellers who have been vaccinated with other vaccines and wonder whether they’ll face stricter measures. Right now, there are far more questions than answers about which travellers would be considered fully vaccinated when the United States reopens for travel. Travellers vaccinated abroad who plan to travel to the U.S. may want to pay close attention to White House and CDC updates, but so far we haven’t gotten clear directives from either.

Featured photo by CasPhotography/Getty Images.

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