It has been more than a year since the US imposed a travel ban on the UK and Europe as a result of the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Here, we look at the current state of play, how things might change and when.
We also ask, crucially, who will be included in those changes. Will travellers have to provide proof of vaccination and/ or pre-departure Covid-19 negative tests? And when we will see the resumption of quarantine-free travel for everyone?
Can I travel to the US at the moment?
The US imposed a ban on travellers from the EU and the UK at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 (and in May for those from Brazil), to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The restrictions were set to be lifted late last year but this did not take place due to the emergence of new Covid-19 variants around the world.
The US is, however, open to US citizens, people who are married to US citizens or individuals who hold a green card.
If you are departing the UK, you must have an essential reason to travel. This policy will last until May 17 at the earliest, and infringements will lead to a £5,000 fine.
When will the US reopen its borders?
Domestic travel has already restarted, with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updating its travel guidance to allow fully vaccinated people to travel “at low risk to themselves”.
The CDC also provided the following advice for international travel:
- Fully vaccinated people can travel internationally without getting a Covid-19 test before travel unless it is required by the international destination
- Fully vaccinated people do not need to self-quarantine after returning to the United States, unless required by a state or local jurisdiction
- Fully vaccinated people must still have a negative Covid-19 test result before they board a flight to the United States and get a Covid-19 test three to five days after returning from international travel
- Fully vaccinated people should continue to take Covid-19 precautions while traveling internationally
Reports by CNBC also suggest that President Biden’s administration will revoke the ban on travellers from the EU, Brazil and the UK by mid-May. The US government is also considering lifting travel restrictions with neighbouring Canada and Mexico, though these will remain closed to non-essential travel until at least April 21.
Organisations representing the aviation and travel industries such as Airlines for America (A4A), IATA and the US Chamber of Commerce are currently lobbying the US government to relax travel restrictions. In a letter addressed to the White House Covid-19 Recovery Team coordinator Jeffrey Zients on March 22, 2021, the coalition states:
“We respectfully urge the federal government to partner with us to develop, by May 1, 2021, a risk-based, data-driven roadmap to rescind inbound international travel restrictions issued under section 212(f) of the Immigration and National Act (INA)”
The letter continues:
“We strongly urge the COVID-19 response team and relevant Federal agencies to partner with airlines, airports, unions, hotels, theme parks and other key stakeholders to develop a data-driven, risk-based roadmap for reopening international travel. The roadmap to safely reopen international travel should be finalised before May 1, 2021, so that a plan is in place to reopen by the summer of 2021 if vaccine distribution and epidemiological trends continue in a positive direction.”
Within the roadmap recommendations, the letter suggests that it should include “bilateral negotiations to ease travel restrictions through public health corridors”. This could potentially include a travel corridor between the UK and the US due to the success of the vaccine rollout in both nations.
When will the UK reopen its borders?
According to the UK’s roadmap out of lockdown, international travel is set to resume on May 17 at the earliest, with the government’s Global Travel Taskforce set to issue recommendations on the restart of travel from April 12.
At the moment, it looks as if the government will introduce a Covid traffic light system for travel from the UK, with countries designated green, amber or red based on criteria such as infection rates, vaccine rollout and border restrictions.
With successful vaccine roll-out programmes in both nations, and the threat of a £2.4 billion loss to the UK economy if the delay on international travel continues, representatives from the travel and tourism industries are calling for the creation of a travel corridor with the US.
The CEOs of Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and London Heathrow are pushing for the full opening of transatlantic routes from May 17, stating that the US should be placed in the ‘green’ category.
The new boss of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Willie Walsh, also called for transatlantic routes to be restarted as soon as possible. Walsh said:
“The relationship between the UK and US has always been strong. There are very strong economic ties and it would be natural to assume that both governments would want to see connectivity restored as soon as possible. Given the pace of vaccination roll out that has taken place in the US, and in the UK, it should give people reason to be optimistic about transatlantic travel between the UK and US starting in a safe manner in the near future.”
How important are these transatlantic routes?
Sean Doyle, CEO of British Airways, said this week:
“Not opening up the UK economy [to the US] is costing the UK about £32 million per day, and means we are missing out on one in 10 business trips. About four and a half million US passengers come to the UK each year and spend about four billion pounds each year. And 4.8 million UK visitors go to the US each year.”
On the wider implications of opening up this international route, Willie Walsh said:
“It is important. It will send a signal to the rest of the world. It will build confidence within the industry and build confidence within those who are supporting the industry. It’s always been a very important market, for everybody not just for carriers based in the UK and US but for all transatlantic traffic, and it would be an excellent indication that things are improving.”
“Economic recovery and growth will not be sustainable without an efficient air transport system, and until we get that aspect of the economic growth we have taken for granted before, this pandemic will remain challenged.”
Are flights still running between the US and the UK?
Yes, some flights are still operating between the US and the UK for essential travel, with airlines increasing the number of services towards the start of the summer. Indeed, Aer Lingus recently launched transatlantic flights from Manchester for the summer season, banking on the restart of international travel.
Additionally, airlines have begun to put in place testing trials and partnerships with digital health passports to prepare for the resumption of international travel. BA has begun trials of the Verifly digital health app, enabling customers on transatlantic routes between London and the US to certify Covid-19 test certificates and required travel documentation before they leave home for their flights. Customers travelling from American Airlines’ domestic airports will also have the option to use the free app on direct and connecting flights to the UK.
Last year, British Airways and American Airlines launched a transatlantic Covid-19 testing trial on selected flights between the United States and London Heathrow, while United Airlines conducted a pilot programme offering free rapid Covid-19 tests to customers travelling from Newark Liberty International to London Heathrow.
Will I need to take Covid-19 tests and undergo quarantine?
Travelling to the US:
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) signed an order in January requiring all passengers entering the country by air to present a negative Covid-19 PCR or antigen test result before their flight.
Travelling to the UK:
Travellers must take a test 72 hours before departure and must self-isolate for ten days at home upon arrival. They will need to take a Covid test on the second and eighth day of self-isolation (so three tests in total).
What about "vaccine passports"?
The White House has stated that it will not introduce mandatory Covid-19 vaccine passports. Press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the government would not be “supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential” and that there would be no “federal vaccinations database”.
Meanwhile, the UK is exploring the introduction of a Covid status certification to enable large events to take place.
For a look at the pros and cons of “vaccine passports”, and the different options being developed, see our recent features: