The US and UK are updating their travel rules for vaccinated visitors

Some vaccinated travelers visiting the US and UK may soon face fewer restrictions.
Some vaccinated travelers visiting the US and UK may soon face fewer restrictions.
Image: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
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Vaccinated people visiting the US and UK from abroad may be subject to less stringent travel restrictions in the coming months, according to new Covid-19 guidance announced by both governments in recent days.

White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients told reporters on Sept. 20 that the US will lift its travel ban for vaccinated travelers come November. Non-citizens entering the US will have to show proof of Covid-19 vaccination as well as a negative test taken within 72 hours of departure, according to Zients. They will not be required to quarantine upon arrival.

This follows UK officials’ Sept. 17 announcement that they will ease restrictions for vaccinated travelers to England from certain countries starting on Oct. 4. Under the new rules, tourists coming from “green list” countries who are fully vaccinated under an approved program do not need to take a Covid-19 test prior to arriving to Britain, nor do they need to quarantine upon arrival. They will also be permitted to take a cheaper Covid-19 test two days after arriving, rather than the costly PCR tests that are currently required. The updated guidance leaves out swaths of travelers from countries spanning from South America to south Asia, though, as their vaccine programs have not been approved by the UK government.

It’s not yet clear whether the US will issue similar guidance on what types of Covid-19 vaccines are valid, and details on both countries’ plans continue to evolve. Here’s what we know for now about the new US and UK regulations and their implications for global vaccine equity.

Eased US guidance means more non-citizen travelers can enter

Non US-citizens from Europe’s Schengen Zone, the UK, China, Brazil, and several other countries have been restricted from entering the country since early 2020, when the Trump administration issued a number of travel bans in response to the worsening coronavirus pandemic.

More recently president Joe Biden banned non-US travelers from South Africa and India in an effort to tamp down on transmission of the Delta variant.

That’s set to change come mid-November, according to US officials, when travelers previously affected by bans may be allowed into the US with proof of vaccination and a negative Covid-19 test.

While the announcement came on the eve of a meeting between Biden and UK prime minister Boris Johnson, Zients said the new guidance would have a far-reaching effect on travelers from all over the world, not just ones coming from the UK or Europe.

“This is based on individuals rather than a country-based approach, so it’s a stronger system,” he said.

The pandemic bans have had an enduring impact on US tourism, with international arrivals down 66% in May 2021 compared to 2019, according to the UN World Tourism Organization.

“Over the last 18 months we haven’t been able to sell to travelers coming inbound to North America because of all the restrictions that were at play,” Ben Perlo, managing director at the travel association G Adventures, told Quartz. “Now that they’re off, it gives companies like myself who cater both internationally and domestically the opportunity to ramp back up to what pre-COVID times were.”

UK vaccine requirements criticized

US officials have not yet said which Covid vaccines will qualify under the new guidance, and this could pose issues for travelers coming from countries where inoculations approved by American regulators are not widely available. Perlo said that navigating different countries’ guidance on what “fully vaccinated” means can be complicated—and he has a team that is constantly monitoring new regulations from government authorities throughout the world.

England’s updated policy has been sharply criticized for only allowing fully vaccinated visitors from certain countries to take advantage of the less restrictive travel regulations, despite the fact that most countries are administering the same vaccines as Britain. India’s Covishield vaccine, for example, is just a locally manufactured version of the Oxford-AxtraZeneca vaccine, but its citizens will still be subject to costly testing and quarantine requirements when visiting the UK.

“This is a tragic, irrational, and utterly confusing decision from the UK,” said Priti Krishtel, co-founder of I-Mak, a non-profit that advocates for vaccine equity in the US and Global South.

A UK high commission spokesperson said on Sept. 20 that they were working on identifying a “relevant public health body” to recognize in India.