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Hey, Immigration Lawyer: Get Me a Coronavirus Passport

February 23, 2021 (4 min read)

Angelo A. Paparelli, Dawn Lurie, Feb. 23, 2021

"Globe-hoppers of the world, too long cabined and constrained by the pandemic, are exhilarated at the prospect of imminent foreign travel.  Many have received the vaccine and are poised to fly far away for business or pleasure.  The vaccinated among us, however, should not buy that airline ticket just yet – unless you know before you go how you will be treated at your foreign destination upon arrival, and upon departure.

Entry and Exit

Increasingly, as multiple variants of COVID-19 are identified, national governments worldwide have tightened entry protocols, and some have imposed exit restrictions.  France, for example, has announced new requirements when departing the country. See “[What is:] Can I leave France?”  – a Jeopardy-style question whose answer is: “You can only travel from France to a country outside the European space if you have pressing grounds for travel, or if you are travelling to your country of origin or residence.”

The United Kingdom, for example, has prohibited travel out of the UK except for narrow permitted reasons, and people entering the UK are subject to a 10-day quarantine upon arrival and national lock down rules during their stay. The UK also has put serious testing protocols in place.  See “What is ‘‘Must I take a COVID-19 test on or before day 2 and day 8 of quarantining?’” – another Jeopardy-style question whose answer is: “Yes, from 15 February onwards, everyone allowed to enter England from outside the Common Travel Area (Ireland, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man) must take two (2) COVID-19 tests, quarantine and follow the lockdown rules.” Furthermore, you cannot currently enter the UK if you’ve been in or through a country on the “red list” in the last 10 days, unless you are British, Irish or you have lawful residence in the UK, in which case you must spend your 10-day quarantine period in a managed quarantine hotel (at a cost of £1,750 for 1 adult in 1 room) and take both tests mentioned above.

Typically, at entry most countries require:

  • an attestation that the arriving traveler is free of symptoms,
  • a certificate confirming that s/he tested negative for the virus (usually PCR [polymerase chain reaction] and/or serology), or survived a bout of COVID and is now no longer ill,
  • some form of self-quarantine, self-isolation, or confinement in government-approved/monitored lodging (with the cost borne by the traveler),
  • proof that the traveler has not been in or through a COVID “hot zone” country in the recent past, and/or
  • evidence that entry is essential or in the national interest.

Information Aplenty

The U.S. Department of State maintains a handy guide to country-specific information and recommends that travelers consult their airlines for details on testing requirements. The CDC also offers an interactive world map listing “COVID-19 Travel Recommendations by Destination.” Better yet, prospective travelers should directly consult the destination country’s official COVID-19 web page which will contain the latest requirements, usually in English. Travelers may also want to check-in with the Department of Homeland Security prior to departing the U.S. as well as the DHS COVID-19 media releases found on the  U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.

Vaccine “Passports”

Adversity is said to spawn innovation.  A variety of companies, organizations and governments have been hard at work trying to develop a passport of sorts for those inoculated against the virus. Much has been written in the recent press (e.g., hereherehere, and here) about the “coronavirus passport,” “vaccination passport,”  or “immunity passport” – a new species of travel document allowing COVID-vaccinated individuals to board planes and disembark in a foreign locale with comparative ease.

Not all of these are new, such as the one issued by the World Health Organization, known as the International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis, or the “Yellow Card,” which can be annotated to reflect that the bearer has received a particular COVID vaccine. Others are smartphone applications, such as CommonPass, and the U.K.’s Blok Pass.  Some of these initiatives go beyond housing personal information. Travelpass, for example, intends to host a digital platform that will include information on travel, testing and vaccine requirements, locations of test centers and labs, and a secure depository for results completed at these authorized test centers and labs. Recently, ID2020 launched the Good Health Pass, a cross-disciplinary collaboration which would create standards for a digitally-issued health pass system.

The problem, however, is that none of these health passes are universally accepted by airlines and countries. Unfortunately, the absence of uniform, widely accepted standards may not change for the foreseeable future.  Concerns remain over potentially intrusive data collection mandates, the adequacy of privacy protections, and safeguards to prevent fraud and data hacking. Moreover, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has raised other objections in speaking out against vaccine passports in Canada, saying that his government would not adopt “extreme measures that could have real divisive impacts on community and country.”

While nation states consider whether to accept some generally agreed form of vaccine passport, for better or worse airlines remain the gatekeepers, deciding on the specific documents required for boarding based on the then-current rules in the particular country of destination. ​

Thus, as would-be travelers eagerly pore over foreign guide books, they must still, unfortunately, follow the old-fashioned rule of looking before alighting.  Alas, there is no coronavirus passport just yet."