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Travel News COVID vaccine certificates and health passes for travel: your questions answered

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COVID vaccine certificates and health passes for travel: your questions answered

Times are tough for travelers. But with the world preparing to reopen in 2021, we're here to keep you dreaming and planning for your next adventure – whether that's a staycation or flying off to parts unknown. Until then, we've got the latest COVID-19 travel advice and updates to keep you up to date and ready to go.

With the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, there has been much discussion among governments, airlines, health officials and tech companies about using a digital, universally accepted COVID-19 vaccine certificate to help speed up the reopening of travel.

But are these travel certificates the quickest and safest route to opening borders? Will they prevent the international spread of the disease and restart economies? It’s not a simple answer. So, to provide you with some clarification about the COVID vaccine travel certificates, we answer your most pressing questions. What are they, and what do they mean for the future of travel?

Keep in mind that all situations related to COVID-19 are rapidly evolving. Before you make bookings or head out on a trip, check the latest guidance from local governments to ensure you know the most up-to-date details.

This page was last updated on April 28, 2021. To our knowledge, the information on this page was correct at the time of publication. For further, up-to-date information, please visit WHO or CDC sites.

You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers! Here’s what we cover in this article:

What are COVID vaccine certificates for travel?

A vaccine certificate is a document of record (physical or digital) identifying an individual who has been vaccinated against diseases, such as COVID-19. The certificate is provided at the time of vaccination and contains limited information, such as name, date, vaccine product name/manufacturer lot number and healthcare professional or clinic site location. Currently, Americans receive paper “vaccination cards,” which contain similar basic information, after they’ve received their first vaccine dose. This card is updated when the second dose is administered, if applicable.

With some exceptions—Mexico and Costa Rica, for example—most countries currently require travelers to present negative coronavirus test results before boarding their inbound flight. Now that more and more people are getting vaccinated, the vaccine certificate could allow those who have received it to travel unrestricted to some destinations, possibly bypassing COVID tests and quarantines. However, at this stage, very little has been concretely decided regarding international freedom of movement for fully vaccinated travelers. 

In some parts of the world, COVID vaccine travel certificates are already (or close to) a reality. For example, China has just implemented the use of digital COVID vaccine certifications for cross-border travel. Estonia is working with the World Health Organization (WHO) to develop a “digitally enhanced International Certificate of Vaccination, a ‘smart yellow card.'” The EU is also developing “digital green certificates” that would allow those who have been vaccinated and meet established vaccine guidelines to travel easily within the EU.

Can I travel after being fully vaccinated?

According to the CDC, which released a travel guide for those fully vaccinated, if you are fully vaccinated and traveling domestically, you do not need to take a COVID-19 test or go through post-travel self-quarantine. However, you must continue to take precautionary measures, such as wearing a mask, social distancing and washing hands frequently. On the other hand, for international travel, it’s important that you check your destination’s requirements and keep in mind that even if you are fully vaccinated, you will still need to present a negative COVID-19 test result before boarding a return flight to the US.

syringe and thermometer sit on top of a yellow vaccine certificate.

How are COVID vaccine certificates different from vaccine passports?

A COVID vaccine certificate only contains information about the COVID-19 vaccine. It will likely be free and available in paper or digital formats. The push for digital is to help streamline the pre-screening process and improve verifiability.

On the other hand, the International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (ICVP), often called by its nickname “yellow card,” is a physical booklet that has also been referred to as a “vaccine passport.” ICVP has been around for decades and is a record of a person’s immunizations against a number of diseases. If you’ve visited certain places in South America or Africa, you probably had to show your ICVP as proof of vaccination against yellow fever, for example. It’s not uncommon for countries to ask for a certificate of vaccination to mitigate health risks for travelers.

While the ICVP is internationally recognized, COVID vaccine certificates have yet to achieve a universally accepted certificate system.

In the United States, the term “vaccine passports” is being used broadly to describe a certificate that shows proof of being vaccinated against COVID-19, which is being considered to provide clearance for activities like travel and admission to in-person events, restaurants and the like. In other countries, “vaccine passports” may be used to describe just one of those concepts (such as a document that allows for admission to events, for example).

The term “vaccine passport” is also occasionally used to describe health or travel passes (one-time use technology that confirms if a traveler meets certain criteria for travel, such as a negative COVID-19 test result). 

Organizations like the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) believe that one-time-use health passes alongside testing and hygiene measures are the way forward. “It will take a significant amount of time to vaccinate the global population, particularly those in less advanced countries, or in different age groups, therefore we should not discriminate against those who wish to travel but have not been vaccinated,” reads a statement from the WTTC. “Testing for non-vaccinated travelers, along with mandatory mask wearing and enhanced health and hygiene protocols, would allow the safe resumption on international travel [and] avoid the risk of transmission.”

How can I get a COVID vaccine certification?

Many countries and organizations are still working out the details. We cannot say with certainty how you would obtain a COVID vaccine certification, as they have not come to fruition at the time of this writing. The best course of action is to keep an eye on official government announcements and guidance for the latest updates.

There are, however, a few vaccine certification initiatives taking place across the globe. For example, New York became the first state to launch a free digital health certificate called Excelsior Pass (developed in partnership with IBM). It allows New York residents to voluntarily share their vaccination or COVID test status. Another example is from Israel, which is issuing digital Green Passes to those who have been vaccinated for or have recovered from COVID-19. In Europe, Iceland was the first country to issue and recognize COVID-19 vaccination certificates, letting in all travelers who can provide proof of full vaccination with a vaccine that has been certified by the European Medical Agency or the World Health Organization.

When will vaccine certificates be available?

Some countries such as India, Denmark and Israel are already issuing digital COVID vaccine certificates. While leading the world in the number of vaccinations, the US is only issuing paper cards at the moment. With no centralized database and with each state at the helm of its vaccine rollout, coming up with a timeline isn’t easy at the moment.

How do I prove my vaccine status in the meantime?

It’s a good idea to always carry the white paper card that’s issued with your COVID-19 vaccine as evidence. Likewise, your doctor should have access to your vaccination status and could provide you with an official note, if necessary. However, until there is an official, widely accepted COVID vaccine certificate, there is no guarantee that travel organisations or business establishments will accept anything else as proof.

Do I need a COVID vaccine certificate to travel to Europe?

At the moment, the US is still considered a high-risk zone. Most European countries, with some exceptions, are open for essential travel only and may require proof of a negative PCR test result and/or quarantine upon arrival. Until an agreement about universally accepted vaccine certificates is reached, “vaccine certificates are not included in EU entry requirements for travelers from the U.S.”

On April 25, 2021, the New York Times reported that fully vaccinated individuals may be allowed entry into the EU as early as this summer, per Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission. “Ms. von der Leyen did not offer a timeline on when exactly tourist travel might open up or details on how it would occur. But her comments are a top-level statement that the current travel restrictions are set to change on the basis of vaccination certificates,” according to the article.

Illustration of a couple taking a selfie with mountains in the background.

Where else can I use a vaccine certificate?

It’s an ongoing discussion, and while the U.S. federal government doesn’t plan to mandate vaccine passports, there are reports of COVID vaccine certificates being considered for entry to universities, cruise ships, restaurants, businesses and other venues.

What is a Health Pass?

A Health Pass is a digital app that allows users to store and share verified documents—such as the COVID vaccine certificate or recent COVID-19 test results—that attest to a person’s health status. The goal of these passes is to make it easier for travelers to prove they meet specific COVID-19 travel criteria by keeping relevant health data in an easily scannable, digital form.

At the moment, each country has its own set of travel requirements and standards around testing and COVID vaccine certificates. A Health Pass is one option that airlines and countries are considering to streamline the pre-screening process as travel opens up. Earlier this year, airlines such as American, United, Alaska and Lufthansa began using various digital health passes on a trial basis.

A man holding a passport is looking at his phone.

Who or which companies are providing health passes? 

There are several companies that are trialing these health passes. One example is the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents close to 300 airlines. The IATA’s Travel Pass is a global digital platform that allows passengers to access up-to-date travel information and manage their travel documentation. The Travel Pass app allows you to:

  1. Learn about specific testing and vaccine requirements and standards for your destination.
  2. Locate verified testing facilities providing required tests (PCR, antigen or LAMP) for both departing and returning destinations.
  3. Allow testing sites and labs to securely send test results or vaccine certificates.
  4. Set up a “digital passport” that verifies tests and certificates and shares the information with authorities.

The IATA is currently in talks with the WHO, the EU and other governments to discuss ways that health passes can be used to restart travel while meeting each country’s requirements.

Other companies with active trials include ICC AOKPass (developed with the International Chamber of Commerce), CommonPass (a World Economic Forum collaboration) and IBM Digital Health Pass. Additionally, Daon, headquartered in the US, has developed VeriFLY as a way to store necessary travel documents in one app, including COVID tests. VeriFLY is currently being trialed on transatlantic British Airways flights to the United States and on some American Airlines international routes.

Will introducing vaccine certification open up travel faster?

The most important step is getting countries, airlines and travelers on the same page while addressing each party’s concerns around immunity, privacy, access and equality. While we can’t predict whether it will open the world up at a faster rate, there’s certainly a need for collaboration and harmonization across governments and governing travel bodies to deliver common standards to enable future travel.

What are the potential benefits of vaccine certificates?

By allowing immunized people to move freely, vaccine certificates could speed up the return to normal life and increase economic activity with a reduced risk of virus transmission. Services and businesses that are less able to operate under social distancing measures would benefit, as would other sectors, such as travel and entertainment. The IATA has argued that vaccine passports could be key in reviving the travel and tourism sectors.

A man with a face mask walks through an airport.

Read more: 10 dream destinations for your post-COVID bucket list

What are the current challenges?

At the forefront is the question of immunity. How long will coronavirus immunity last and will it really slow the spread of the virus? There are ethical issues, such as making vaccination mandatory when there are people who are unable or do not want to be vaccinated. Likewise, there is concern about inequality when it comes to vaccine distribution, as well as smartphone and internet access for poorer countries. The other significant hurdle is creating a secure digital system that is trusted worldwide. The issues all play into the extension of these “health passes” beyond airports into venues such as stadiums, workplaces and restaurants—which also concern critics.

However, it is worth noting that these apps use decentralized technology to store limited personal data. In other words, there is no central database that stores personally identifiable information. It is up to the holder of the information to release the data to an airline, government or lab. Likewise, digital health passes only store testing or vaccine data and may prevent the rising number of fraudulent vaccine cards.

Supporters are also stressing the fact that vaccine certificates are nothing new in the world of travel. The big shift is really about going digital.

Read more: Your travel-related COVID-19 questions answered

A few last words

Although far from perfect, the global vaccine rollout is giving travelers and the tourism industry some hope that they can finally get back out there safely. While the use of vaccine travel certificates may or may not be the answer, there are other ways to make your next trip safer and a little less stressful.

For example, when you book with Skyscanner, you can choose flexible options for your flights, hotel bookings and car rentals, which provide you with some peace of mind should your trip be canceled or postponed. Go on to filter your search results based on an airline’s COVID-19 safety rating. And, when you look for a hotel on Skyscanner, you can see a hotel cleanliness rating for added peace of mind.

Discover where you can go

Making plans to get back out there? Find out whose borders are open with our interactive global map, and sign up to receive email updates when your top destinations reopen.

Skyscanner's map tells you exactly where you can go right now.

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