What travelers need to know now about testing and vaccine records. Paper won’t cut it

Illustration of a passport and a phone
(Jamie Sholberg / Los Angeles Times; Getty)
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The rumblings about travel in our COVID-ravaged world continue to worry those aching to get back out there. Do I need a COVID-19 test to get on a plane? What’s a health passport? Can’t I just carry my vaccine card? If I don’t, does this mean I can’t travel? Should I just go sit in my basement?

We’ll answer the last question first: No, do not attempt to sit in your basement, partly because most California houses don’t have basements.

Those who hope to travel in the U.S. or visit another country may need new documents and will have new responsibilities. Here are the answers to some common questions.


Do I need a negative COVID-19 test to get on a domestic flight? Mostly no. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention briefly considered that idea last month before rejecting it. But the agency recommends you get tested three to five days after travel and stay at home for a week.

One sort-of exception is Hawaii, which requires that you have a negative test before arrival or plan to quarantine for the first 10 days you’re there. Your test must come from a list of designated test sites .

Do I need a negative test to fly home to the U.S. from a foreign destination? Yes. It doesn’t matter whether you are a citizen; the CDC says you must have a negative test within three days of your departure.

What if I’ve had the vaccine? In some cases, it may not get you into a country.

You may, for instance, have completed your shots, but you’re not going to be allowed into Australia or Belgium. You can use Canada’s Restrictions Wizard to see whether your circumstances will allow you to enter.

For instance, I plugged in that I was a foreign national, not having COVID symptoms and coming from the U.S. for a wedding. Answer: No, not allowed. There is a bit of wiggle room in some categories. If you want to visit someone who is dying, you may be able to get in, but the person you’re visiting must be Canadian and you must apply for “compassionate entry.” If the person isn’t a Canadian resident, the answer is no.

Will proof of a vaccine or a negative test be the key for travel to some countries? Probably, and that’s why you’re starting to hear about “health passports,” apps that allow you to carry proof of your vaccination or a negative test on your smart device.


Who’s creating these? Several organizations, including the World Economic Forum and the Commons Project Foundation (CommonPass); IBM (Digital Health Pass); and the International Air Transport Assn. (Travel Pass, which will be integrated into some airline apps).

Some countries are developing their own, including Bahrain and Malaysia. Airlines are joining forces with such companies as VeriFly to expedite the safety/identity issues central to the travel experience.

Why aren’t more of these ready to go? Because it’s more complicated than it seems at first glance. The challenge isn’t just health-related travel considerations. Instead, it’s to create a system that is secure, digital and comprehensive, said Nick Careen, the senior vice president of airport, passenger, cargo and security for IATA.

People are understandably nervous about the security of their information. “From our perspective as a data company,” said Rob Shavell, a privacy expert and chief executive of Abine, “it is very hard to protect information once it’s out there.”

Some organizations say they will leave that data with you — that is, on your phone so you’re in control of it. But, Shavell said, “It is much safer for all data to remain on phone …. [But] the apps themselves can have security vulnerabilities.”

As for digital, take a look at your documentation if you’ve had the COVID-19 vaccination. Chances are you have a little white card. The name part of the one I received was blank. I could have written in any name. Further, it was paper. If 60% of L.A. County residents get the vaccine, that’s 5.7 million records if you subtract children younger than 5, based on a July 2019 Census population.


The L.A. County Department of Public Health said these records are being digitized. “We are pushing out electronic digital records of vaccination with the date and type (Moderna/Pfizer/J&J) so [recipients] can save it in their Apple Wallet or Google Wallet and always access it from their phone,” a spokesman said in an email.

But, Careen said, the process of going digital is going to “require governments to think retroactively.”

Then there’s setting that digital standard. Wouldn’t those vaccination records, not just ones in the U.S., have to conform? Alas, yes. The standards are still being studied, although recommendations are expected in the next few weeks, maybe earlier, he said.

Some people will be disenfranchised because they lack computer skills or accessibility. Airlines should still have the ability to look at paper records. But, Careen said, “If we’re verifying everybody’s piece of paper, you’ll never get an airliner off the ground, never mind solving an operational problem.”

Why would proof of vaccine be accepted if those who have been vaccinated can still spread the virus? Much is still unknown about the spreading of COVID-19 by people who have been vaccinated, but it appears the vaccination reduces the chance of infecting someone else.

“Transmission happens when enough viral particles from an infected person get into the body of an uninfected person,” microbiologist Deborah Fuller of the University of Washington’s School of Medicine said in a conversation with the World Economic Forum, which is working to develop CommonPass.


“In theory, anyone infected with the coronavirus could potentially transmit it. But a vaccine will reduce the chance of this happening.

“In general, if vaccination doesn’t completely prevent infection, it will significantly reduce the amount of virus coming out of your nose and mouth — a process called shedding — and shorten the time that you shed the virus. This is a big deal. A person who sheds less virus is less likely to transmit it to someone else.”

Because it’s not 100%, social distancing, vigilant hygiene and masking are still a good idea, she said.

Countries are also concerned about travelers getting COVID-19 and having to be hospitalized, and that’s why many want proof of vaccination and health insurance. They don’t want their health systems burdened by foreigners sucking up valuable resources that need to be reserved for citizens.

Every country has its own conditions for entry. For instance, European Union countries have opened their borders to residents of Australia, New Zealand, Rwanda, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and China (but with conditions on retroactivity from China). Notice what country is not on that list.

Maybe you can try Iceland or Italy. Nope. Iceland isn’t a member of the European Union but is following its guidelines, as is EU member Italy. So far, U.S. citizens are barred from nonessential travel to those and other countries.


Change is a constant, so the website of the destination or its embassy will be helpful. Also check IATA’s open-closed map, which posts rules and regs for visiting various countries.

If this seems messy, unformed and a little out of control, it’s because it is. No one planned on this, but organizations are trying to get out in front of it if that’s possible.

Going forward, Careen says his job is to make this “less chaotic.”

“We owe it to … the industry. … We owe it to consumers.”

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