How to understand your testing window for visiting the US after 6 Dec rule change

Dec 4, 2021

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Travellers flying to the U.S. from abroad have to get their mandatory COVID-19 test two days earlier than before after the White House announced that it would significantly narrow the testing window earlier this week due to the coronavirus omicron variant.

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All travellers coming to the U.S., whether they are vaccinated or not, must produce a negative COVID-19 test taken within one calendar day of their departure. This replaces the previous policy where vaccinated international travellers could show a negative test taken within three days before departure.

The new policy will almost certainly impact all travellers, who will now need to be even more diligent in getting a negative COVID-19 test before flying back to the U.S. There’s a lot to unpack, so here’s what you need to know about pre-travel testing for flights to the U.S.

COVID testing at Porto Airport (Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

When do I need to take a negative test to fly back to the U.S.?

Travellers flying into the U.S. from abroad need to show a pre-departure viral test result from a specimen collected no more than one calendar day from the flight’s departure from a foreign country or the first flight in a series of connections booked on the same itinerary. This test can either be a rapid antigen or a PCR test.

Of the two types of COVID-19 tests, the antigen variety is usually much faster than PCR tests — although it is possible to get same-day PCR tests at some testing centres. A same-day PCR test however will require additional organisation and cost more due to the processes involved.  This rule applies to all travellers flying into the U.S. from abroad (U.S. territories are exempt) regardless of citizenship or vaccination status.

How do I determine my testing window?

The rule states travellers’ COVID-19 specimens should be collected no more than one calendar day before the departure of the passenger’s originating flight to the United States. According to the official rules from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this includes the U.S.-bound flight’s departure “or first flight in a series of connections booked on the same itinerary.”

This is especially important if your itinerary contains an overnight layover and separate tickets — or if you’ve built in a longer stopover to add another destination to your trip.

For instance, if you have a flight from Phuket (HKT) to New York (JFK) that departs on 4 January with an overnight layover in Dubai (DXB) — and your flight from DXB to JFK departs on 5 January and is on a separate ticket — you would need to take a test in Thailand on 4 January for it to fall within the one-calendar-day window for the U.S.-bound flight.

If you instead test on 3 January, you’d need to get another negative COVID-19 test result before your flight left from Dubai, as you would be out of the one-day window for your U.S.-bound segment.

What if I have a connecting flight through the US?

The new rule also applies to people merely connecting through the U.S., regardless of whether it is their final destination or a connection to another country.

What if my flight gets delayed or cancelled?

With so much uncertainty in travel right now, the last thing travellers want is a delayed or cancelled flight, but you should be prepared if it happens. The CDC order doesn’t specifically address rebooked or cancelled flights. Still, if you miss a connection and need to get rebooked for the following calendar day, you will likely need to take another COVID-19 test if you’ve fallen out of the testing window.

If you find yourself with an unexpected overnight delay, you should immediately investigate testing options — either at the airport or in a nearby clinic. Be sure that the location can turn around results quickly enough, and make sure that the results will be provided in an acceptable print or digital form.

Related: How to find an affordable, reliable and fast Day 2 PCR test when travelling to the UK

How can I ensure that I stay within the testing window?

The easiest way to stay within the testing window appears to be carrying out an at-home test that includes remote supervision. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year said airlines could accept these at-home tests, which have been extremely popular with travellers.

Several companies, such as Qured or Randox sell at-home or mail-in COVID-19 tests. However, only proctored (supervised) tests can be used to fly into the U.S. and you need to ensure that you opt for this specific service when organising your test.

These at-home tests can be pretty pricey — especially if you travel regularly —, but the White House says that private health insurers will soon fully reimburse for the cost of the tests. So if you’re concerned about not getting a COVID-19 test in time (or you fall out of the testing window), you may want to pack a couple of at-home tests in your luggage — if you can find one.

When does the new policy go into effect?

The order goes into effect for flights departing at or after 5:01 a.m. GMT (12:01 a.m. EST) on 6 December 2021. That means any passenger on an international flight departing after that date and time would be subjected to the new rule.

The CDC said that it may exercise enforcement discretion “to adjust the scope of accepted pre-departure testing requirements to allow passengers and airline and aircraft operators greater flexibility regarding the requirements.” The agency said enforcement would be announced on the CDC’s website.

What if I’m entering the U.S. by land?

You will not need to provide a negative test if you’re entering the U.S. through the land borders with Canada and Mexico.

What about children?

All passengers 2 years of age and older travelling into the U.S. must provide proof of a negative test. Travellers age 2 and under are exempt from this amended rule, as with the original rule.

Featured photo by Piero Cruciatti/AFP/Getty Images

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