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COVID-19 and Travel: Testing as a Precondition
| Marcin Kubarek | Olga Astapova

COVID-19 and Travel: Testing as a Precondition

In this blog we look at PCR testing requirements for international travel

Before COVID-19, international travel was much more easily accessible than it is today—multiple airline options, hundreds of destinations and budget flights, all hand-in-hand with relatively simple immigration procedures. In many parts of the world, all of this is now a thing of the past. The global pandemic has forced countries to close their borders and impose strict and complicated entry and departure procedures. Today, many governments allow only essential travel and continue to restrict entry to citizens and residents.

But while the world is waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine, current economic conditions (especially in the tourism sector) have urged many countries to relax some immigration and quarantine restrictions. Given the popularity of a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test in COVID-19 diagnosis, many governments quickly added the PCR test to their lists of mandatory requirements for air travel, entry and departure. Today, only a few countries globally do not mandate presenting a negative PCR test result for entry, and those that do apply different conditions.

What tests are available? 

There are different types of COVID-19 tests available at this point of time, but not all of them are accepted when it comes to travelling. While countries around the world consider PCR tests to be more precise and trustworthy, the results typically take longer to be obtained in comparison to other rapid tests. The rapid tests which issue the result in a shorter timeframe are cheaper than PCR, but they are generally considered less accurate and, hence, are not being accepted in most instances.

COVID-19 test validity

The timelines for the issuance of the COVID-19 test results also vary. In most cases there is a direct link between the fee of the test and the speed of obtaining the result: the higher the fee, the faster the result will be issued. When it comes to travelling, individuals are left with no choice but to go with the fast-processing and expensive option to make sure they meet the requirements of all parties.

There is a lot of confusion around test validity. An individual should check the requirements with the country of departure, the country of arrival and with the airline, to make sure he or she meets the requirements to travel internationally. If the individual’s test results do not meet all the prescribed requirements, the traveller might be denied boarding and will subsequently have to start preparing for the trip again, keeping in mind the potential challenges with reserving new flights and scheduling a new COVID-19 test.

Advantages of testing upon arrival

Some countries in the Middle East (and worldwide), including Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) offer a PCR test upon arrival to all or to select categories of travellers. This significantly reduces potential issues related to arranging the test before travel and mitigates risks related to being unfit to fly (e.g., due to false PCR test results), including spending additional costs for accommodation, travel insurance, COVID-19 testing and others. Arriving passengers are simply instructed to self-isolate until they get their test results, which generally takes between 24 and 48 hours. However, in the unfortunate event of even one family member testing positive, the whole family will be subject to a quarantine with an average duration of 14 days, depending on the destination. Quarantine conditions also vary and may involve a self-isolation at the traveller’s own accommodation or at a government-approved facility. This is typically assessed by health authorities upon arrival.

COVID-19 travel insurance

Considering the above possible complications, COVID-19 insurance cover is a new trend for travellers and is now offered by most insurance companies and even airlines as part of the ticket. This is important not only from the traveller’s perspective, but also meets the requirements of governments for entry. In certain jurisdictions, including Oman and the UAE, travel insurance covering the costs of COVID-19 treatment is mandatory for all select categories of travellers (typically for visitors and non-nationals) while in others, like Brazil, the validity of the travel insurance impacts the maximum allowable duration of stay in a country.

A new type of travel restrictionism

The need to better control the movement of people and to limit the spread of the virus has given birth to a new type of restrictionism that implements a health policy in immigration processes. This is done on a much greater scale than ever before, with similar measures applied only during the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak in Western Africa - and those measures had a much lesser impact and were applied on a regional basis. It is also in addition to any existing regulations that mandate a medical exam (disease-free certificate) for individuals seeking employment and residency abroad (e.g., HIV and Tuberculosis tests in the Middle East), or policies that require proof of vaccination for entry (e.g., a Yellow Fever certificate for countries in Africa).

Unfortunately, weekend getaways or quick international business trips are not a feasible option for most travellers at the moment. Instead, thorough planning is required before making a decision to travel, which includes the cost, time, and health-related considerations. In light of this, many people avoid travelling as they worry about potential complications if things do not go according to plan.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not anticipated to end anytime soon, meaning that people will have to accept and adapt to the new reality, and COVID-19 tests will seemingly become a part of the routine, especially for travellers who wish to follow the old habits and move around the world.

Should you wish to discuss any mobility or immigration-related matters for the Middle East, please reach out to [email protected] or your Fragomen immigration professional.

This blog was published on 10 November 2020, and due to the circumstances, there are frequent changes. To keep up to date with all the latest updates on global immigration, please visit our COVID-19 microsite, subscribe to our alerts and follow us on LinkedIn.