Back to the US: how the new policy for British visitors will work

·6-min read
Wild west: hikers in Zion Canyon National Park, Utah (Charlotte Hindle)
Wild west: hikers in Zion Canyon National Park, Utah (Charlotte Hindle)

Eighteen months after a presidential proclamation from Donald Trump closed off the US to British visitors, American officials say the travel ban will be lifted from some time in November – for fully vaccinated travellers only.

But how will the new rules work?

Here’s everything you need to know.

What are the current rules?

Visitors from the UK, Ireland and the Schengen Area (most of the EU plus Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein) have been banned from travelling to the US since March 2020.

A presidential proclamation outlawing direct arrivals was made by Donald Trump, who announced it would be lifted at the end of his White House tenure – only for his successor, Joe Biden, to re-impose the prohibition on people who have been “physically present” in one of those locations “during the 14-day period preceding their entry or attempted entry into the United States”.

The decree applies to all travellers except American citizens and foreigners with right of residence in the US. Similar bans apply to China, Iran, Brazil, South Africa and India.

The ban has looked increasingly unjustifiable, since the US remained open to arrivals from more than 150 other countries, many of them with more serious Covid concerns than Europe.

The travel ban has proved extremely harsh for people with family or partners in the US, as well as causing damage to tourism.

Are there any ways around the ban?

Yes, people with a compassionate reason to travel to the US– or whose presence is held to be beneficial to the American nation – may be granted permission. The latter option, known as a “National Interest Exception,” has been used by some professionals but not those seeking to visit loved ones or holidaymakers.

Most travellers with pressing reasons to go to the US have “laundered” their status – by spending two weeks in a third country, usually Mexico, before continuing by air (land borders are closed) to an American airport.

What is changing?

From some time in November - exact date to be confirmed - the blanket travel ban will be lifted on the UK, Europe and the other nations that have been blocked during the coronavirus pandemic, meaning foreign nationals from anywhere in the world will be able to visit, provided they can prove their fully vaccinated status.

Fully vaccinated travellers from these countries will then be able to enter on the normal terms: presenting a visa or an Esta (America’s online entry permit). They will not need to quarantine on arrival.

At the same time, it is expected that land travel from Canada and Mexico will be opened up; at present people can fly from either country to the US but not travel by road or rail.

What constitutes “fully vaccinated”?

A person who has completed, at least two weeks ago, a course of jabs with a vaccine authorised for emergency use by the World Health Organisation (WHO). These are Oxford AstraZeneca, Janssen (Johnson & Johnson), Moderna,and Pfizer/BioNTech, as well as two Chinese vaccines: Sinopharm and Sinovac.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC, the health regulator in the US) says explicitly that its guidance on what constitutes being fully vaccinated applies to Oxford AstraZeneca, wherever it was manufactured.

The US Food & Drug Administration recognises fewer vaccines, and has not yet approved Oxford AstraZeneca, but that is not relevant to travellers – WHO recognition is sufficient.

What about children who have not been vaccinated?

Until the US provides more guidance, you are advised not to make any family plans.

The standard approach in many countries is that under-18s are allowed in with tests but not quarantine. But the view expressed by the Centers for Disease Control to American families is: “CDC recommends delaying travel until you are able to get fully vaccinated.”

As part of the usual media briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki specified on Monday that visiting adults will need to be fully vaccinated – which possibly implies that visiting children will not. But like so much about the new policy, there is no certainty.

Any other requirements?

You must take a Covid test no more than three days before travel and a second test between three and five days after arrival. A cheap and rapid antigen (lateral flow) test is acceptable – no need to take a PCR.

The US offers more flexibility than most countries over the timing of the pre-departure test. The CDC says: “The three-day period is the three days before the flight’s departure.

“For example, if a passenger’s flight is at 1pm on a Friday, the passenger could board with a negative test that was taken any time on the prior Tuesday or after.”

Alternative, you can provide proof that you have recovered from Covid-19 in the past three months.

The Americans are also devising a passenger locator form, of the kind that are common across the world, so that health authorities can keep tabs on travellers.

Will there be any restrictions on travel within the US?

Yes. Individual states have imposed their own rules and recommendations.

For example, John De Fries, president of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, says: “We are strongly advising visitors that now is not the right time to travel, and they should postpone their trips through the end of October.”

The island state also requires arriving travellers to quarantine unless they have been vaccinated in the US.

But Alaska has dropped its travel restrictions and also offers free vaccines to arriving travellers “at a participating airport or any community vaccine clinic”.

Will I be able to find a transatlantic flight?

Airlines have been running flights between the UK and US throughout the coronavirus pandemic. These have mostly carried essential workers and, latterly, US citizens who have been allowed to visit Britain with proof of vaccination.

However, there is likely to be a surge in bookings for flights immediately after the ban lifts, due to all the pent-up demand to see families and friends.

Virgin Atlantic reported a 91 per cent increase in UK-US bookings, week-on-week, in the first hour after the end of the ban was announced.

It is likely that airlines will quickly ramp up flights, so after the first few days fares will have settled down and availability should rise.

So an early December trip for Christmas shopping or Florida sunshine is on the cards for vaccinated travellers.

I suggest you hold off booking a ticket for a week or two. At present prospective travellers are bidding for a limited number of departures.

Airlines will quickly ramp up flights once the exact timing is known, so you will have more choice and (hopefully) lower fares.

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