COVID-19 tests for travel to the US from the UK
Find out what you need to know about tests for a trip to the US as well as who’s allowed to travel to the US from the UK.
After nearly 2 years of closed borders, as of 8 November 2021, UK visitors are finally able to travel to the US again. It’s good news for those who’ve been missing family or friends in the States, but the US requirements for UK visitors are complex. This guide is here to help you work out what’s what.
Who is allowed to travel to the US?
Before 8 November, only US citizens and a small selection of other exempt groups were allowed to enter the US from the UK. The US travel ban also applied to people travelling from Brazil, China, India, Ireland, South Africa, Iran and the Schengen countries – a group of 26 European nations, including France, Germany and Spain.
Since 8 November, the ban has been lifted, but subject to 2 essential criteria. All visitors who are not US citizens or legal permanent residents must fulfil both of the following criteria:
- Be fully vaccinated and show proof of vaccination
- Show a negative COVID-19 test result or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 when travelling to the US by air.
Under-18s are exempt from the vaccination requirement (children aged 2-17 must still take a pre-departure test). Those with a medical condition that precludes them from having a coronavirus vaccine and certain other groups are also exempt from the vaccination requirement but, in some cases, may be required to carry out additional tests and to quarantine.
The requirements outlined in this guide focus on people arriving in the US by air, which is the case for most travellers. The rules for arrival overland or by sea may be slightly different.
What counts as “fully vaccinated” for travel to the US?
All of the following coronavirus vaccines, which have been widely used in the UK (as of November 2021), are accepted for travel to the US:
Importantly, you must have received both doses of these 2-dose vaccines to be considered fully vaccinated – and you must have received the last dose at least 2 weeks before your trip.
For the minority of people who might not have received the standard UK vaccine doses, they must meet the following criteria to be considered fully vaccinated:
- 2 weeks (14 days) after your dose of an accepted single-dose vaccine (such as the Janssen/J&J vaccine)
- 2 weeks (14 days) after your second dose of an accepted 2-dose series (such as the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccines)
- 2 weeks (14 days) after you have received the full series of an accepted COVID-19 vaccine (not placebo) in a clinical trial
- 2 weeks (14 days) after you have received the full series of a Novavax (or Covovax) COVID-19 vaccine (not placebo) in a phase 3 clinical trial
- 2 weeks (14 days) after you have received 2 doses of any “mix-and-match” combination of accepted COVID-19 vaccines administered at least 17 days apart.
If you don’t meet these requirements, you are not considered fully vaccinated and will not be allowed entry into the US unless you meet exception criteria.
Are there any exceptions to the vaccination requirement to travel to the US?
Yes, but you must meet certain criteria to be able to travel to the US without being vaccinated. These include being under 18 or having a documented medical condition that means you can’t have a COVID-19 vaccine. In addition, unvaccinated travellers may be required to commit to the following:
- Taking a COVID-19 test 3-5 days after arrival in the US
- Self-quarantining for a full 7 days, even if the test result is negative (over-18s only)
- Self-isolating if the test result is positive or you develop coronavirus symptoms.
You can read the full list of exemption criteria as well as information on related testing or other requirements on the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.
What do I need to show as proof that I’m fully vaccinated?
The good news is that the US accepts the QR code-based NHS COVID Pass (available through the NHS app or the online NHS COVID Pass service) as proof of vaccination. You can show it on your smartphone or as a printed-out paper certificate.
If you cannot apply for your NHS COVID Pass digitally, you can ask for an NHS COVID Pass letter (you can also call 119 to ask for this) to be sent to you in the post. This will also be accepted.
Other accepted proof includes the following:
|Type of documentation||Examples|
|Verifiable records (digital or paper)||Other certificates or smartphone apps with QR codes, such as the European Union Digital COVID Certificate|
|Non-verifiable paper records||Print-outs of COVID-19 vaccination records or certificates from an official source (such as government or public health agency or other authorised vaccine provider)|
|Non-verifiable digital records||Downloaded vaccination record or certificate from an official source|
Importantly, all forms of proof must have the following:
- Your full name plus at least one other identifier, such as your date of birth or passport number, that matches your passport
- The name of the official source issuing the record (such as the government or public health agency)
- The vaccine manufacturer and dates of the vaccine.
What tests do I need before I go to the US?
As of 6 December 2021, all travellers must take a COVID-19 test no more than 1 day before travel and must show the results in order to board a flight to the US.
This means that if you’re travelling to the US, you must choose a test provider that can guarantee you will be able to take your test and get your results within the 24 hours before you travel.
The US does accept lateral flow tests, as well as PCR tests, but there are specific requirements about these, as we explain below.
Who doesn’t need to take a pre-departure test?
Children under 2 years old don’t need to take a test.
If you have recovered from COVID-19 within the last 90 days, instead of taking a test, you can travel with documentation of your recovery from COVID-19. This is because it’s possible to continue to test positive for this period without being infectious.
Documentation of your recovery would include your positive COVID-19 test result for a sample taken no more than 90 days before the flight’s departure, and a letter from a licensed healthcare provider or a public health official stating that you are cleared to travel.
What tests do I need after I arrive in the US?
- If you are fully vaccinated, you are not required to have any tests after arrival in the US unless you develop COVID-19 symptoms (though a test 3-5 days after arrival is recommended).
- If you are not fully vaccinated, and are travelling under an exemption, you must take a COVID-19 test 3-5 days after arrival. Those aged 18 and over must also self-quarantine at home or in their hotel room for a full 7 days, even if they test negative (children under 18 are exempt from this).
Who doesn’t need to take a post-arrival test?
Children under 2 years old do not need to take a post-arrival test. If you’ve recovered from COVID-19 in the 90 days before travel and have official documentation confirming this, you are exempt from the testing and quarantine requirements.
What types of coronavirus test does the US accept?
First and foremost, you cannot use a free NHS test (PCR or rapid lateral flow antigen test) for travel to another country, including the US. You need to pay for a test yourself.
The US does accept lateral flow tests – which are cheaper – as well as PCR tests, but not all DIY home tests will be permitted. To meet requirements, at-home tests must be supervised by the test provider on a video call. This is so it can confirm your identity and watch you take your sample. Alternatively, you can get tested at a commercial testing centre. The test provider must also be able to issue a report that meets CDC requirements. You will need to show this report before you board the plane and to US officials when you enter the States as well as at other times as required.
So before you book potentially pricey tests, check that the provider and the testing option you choose meet these requirements.
What tests do I need before I return to the UK?
The rapid spread of the Omicron variant has been a game-changer – and not in a good way. As of 7 December 2021, regardless of your vaccination status, you must take a COVID-19 test in the 2 days before your flight to the UK leaves. You will need to present valid proof of your negative test before you board the plane.
Pre-departure tests can be either PCR tests or rapid lateral flow tests (but not the tests provided by the NHS). Tests must be purchased from a private provider. They must either be carried out face-to-face with the test provider or, if they’re self-administered, validated by the test provider using video or photo verification.
Who doesn’t need to take a test?
Children aged 11 and under do not need to take a pre-departure test.
There may also be rare medical exemptions, for example, if you have a medical condition that means you cannot take a test (if so, you will need to provide a note from a medical practitioner). Some people are also exempt from some or all requirements because of their job.
What tests do I need after I arrive back in the UK?
- If you’re fully vaccinated, you must take a PCR test before the end of day 2 (arrival day is day 0) of being in the UK. You must quarantine at home or in the place you are staying while you wait for your test result.
- If you’re not fully vaccinated, you must take a PCR test before the end of day 2 of being in the UK plus a second test to be taken on day 8.
Post-arrival COVID-19 PCR tests must be booked and paid for with a private test provider before you travel to the UK. You’ll need to provide the booking reference for tests on the passenger locator form that you must complete within 48 hours before arriving in the UK. Rapid lateral flow tests are currently not accepted as post-arrival tests when you return to the UK.
Who doesn’t need to take a post-arrival test?
The post-arrival testing requirements for children travelling from the US (vaccinated or unvaccinated) vary depending on the UK country you are travelling to.
- England and Northern Ireland: Children aged 4 and under don’t have to take any tests. Children aged 5-17 must take a pre-booked PCR test before the end of day 2.
- Scotland: Children aged 10 and under don’t have to take any tests. Children aged 11-17 must take a pre-booked PCR test before the end of day 2.
- Wales: Children aged 4 and under don’t have to take any tests. Children aged 5-17 must take the same tests as over-18s, depending on their vaccination status.
As with pre-departure tests, there may be circumstances when certain travellers are exempt from some or all testing requirements for medical reasons or because of their job.
Do I need to self-isolate when I return to the UK from the US?
It depends on your vaccination status and, potentially, the results of your day 2 coronavirus test.
- If you’re 18 or over and unvaccinated, regardless of the results of your day 2 or day 8 tests, you must usually quarantine at home or in the place you are staying for at least 10 full days. You may be able to end quarantine early (in England only) if you pay for a private COVID-19 PCR test through the Test to Release scheme. If the results of any test are positive, you must self-isolate for 10 full days after the date of the test (day 0).
- If you are fully vaccinated (or a child that has not been vaccinated but is treated as vaccinated due to their age), you must self-isolate until you receive the results of your day 2 PCR test.
- If your day 2 PCR test is negative, you do not need to continue to self-isolate.
- If your day 2 PCR coronavirus test is positive or unclear, you must usually self-isolate for 10 full days after the date you took the test. However, if the result is unclear, you can choose to take another private test and can stop self-isolating if the result of this is negative.
Is there anything else I need to know about travelling to the US during the pandemic?
In the kerfuffle of sorting out all of your COVID travel requirements, don’t forget to apply for your ESTA (or Electronic System for Travel Authorization) visa waiver. All those travelling to the US as a visitor for 90 days or less, for business or pleasure, must apply for an ESTA before they travel. Those staying longer are likely to require a full visa. A good travel insurance policy is also a must-have.
And there are a couple of further, important coronavirus-related points to bear in mind.
- When travelling to the US, you will be required to provide contact information to airlines before boarding flights. When returning to the UK, you will need to complete and submit a passenger locator form no more than 48 hours before you arrive in the UK.
- Be aware that different states may have different COVID-19 restrictions in place while you’re there, for example, in relation to social distancing and mask wearing. It’s a good idea to check this before you travel so that you know what to expect.
The bottom line
There have been cases of travellers being refused boarding to various countries because of confusion over what’s required. Don’t let your long-awaited trip get ruined by taking the wrong test or misinterpreting the rules. Use the advice in this guide to make sure you leave no box unticked. And, in case you weren’t all too aware of this, don’t forget that the situation changes all the time, so double-check on the US embassy’s website a few days before you fly to find out what’s needed.
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