This article originally appeared on May 13, 2021, on our sister site, Lonely Planet. Some info may have been updated to be more current.
With many countries ramping up the administration of COVID-19 vaccines, travel is cautiously resuming in some destinations. But how are airlines and governments keeping track of travelers who have gotten the jab? What about digital health passports, proof of vaccines or negative tests, and digital travel pass apps? Here’s what you need to know.
If you see the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel as global vaccinations increase, you’re not alone. Millions of people have already been vaccinated against this terrible disease, and if you’re longing to see friends and loved ones or to explore the world once more, it’s a massive comfort.
It’s important to know that some airlines and governments are likely to require proof of vaccination before you can travel. Some are already requiring it. And since there’s no common system, that may mean you need to take the initiative and be prepared for some thoroughly unglamorous paperwork.
Some countries or regions are developing their own “vaccine passport” app systems to kick-start travel. Some can be included as part of your airline’s app, and some are separate. They work in various ways, but they’re mainly based on the input, processing, and output of documents proving either your test status or your vaccination information.
On the input side, an app could be automatically linked with private testing companies, use QR codes like the EU Digital COVID Certificate, or require you to take and send a picture of your document before traveling. Since a vaccination record is the key to unlocking travel, it’s a good idea to laminate any paperwork or store it in a folder.
On the output side, the idea is that your app automatically tells the airline system whether the document you sent them means you’re OK to fly. It may, however, need help from a data center of real humans, some AI analysis, or most likely a combination of the two.
When you’re vaccinated, your vaccine certificate should state your name, the date of your vaccination (or vaccinations — if you get a two-jab vaccine, make sure you particularly keep track of the second piece of paperwork), the medical professional who administered it, the vaccine administered, the lot number of the vaccine, and the location of the administration center.
If you live someplace where English isn’t the language of paperwork from your healthcare system, it might be worth creating an English translation printout for your doctor or another medical professional to stamp and sign.
It’s also a good idea to keep a record of correspondence between you and your vaccination provider, such as vaccine appointment confirmations. It’s unlikely to be required when traveling, but it doesn’t hurt to have that extra detail of proof just in case.
There isn’t a standard vaccination certificate for travel, and there’s no single airline system that manages the various vaccination and testing requirements. The closest we have to a global standard is the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Global Travel Pass, which is currently being tested among 22 airlines.
In general, the process is likely to become more complicated as newer vaccines and variants emerge. But in the meantime, it depends on where you’re traveling and how you’re getting there.
The European Union (EU) recently implemented the EU Digital COVID Certificate, which facilitates travel between its member states.
The certificate is proof that an individual traveler has received a negative COVID-19 test result, has recovered from the virus, or has indeed been inoculated against COVID-19 from vaccines approved by the European Medicines Agency, including the Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
However, member states may decide to accept travelers who have received another vaccine, such as those listed by the World Health Organization for emergency use.
Here’s how it works, according to the EU: The certificate is valid in all EU countries and will be issued by hospitals, test centers, or health authorities in the individual’s home country. The information can be stored on a mobile device, with the individual’s COVID-19-related health information displayed in the national language and English.
Officials say the information stored will be safe and secure — the certificate is QR code-based with a digital signature to protect it against falsification. A paper format is also available if requested.
The EU Digital COVID Certificate isn’t currently available to travelers from the U.S., but U.S. travelers can still travel to Europe now that it has been added to the EU’s list of approved countries. Different countries have different requirements for entry. For example, Greece, Croatia, and Iceland accept vaccinated travelers if they present digital or paper public health vaccination cards or proof of inoculation upon arrival. Americans can present their CDC-issued vaccination card, while British travelers can use their NHS paper card.
Cyprus is also accepting vaccinated travelers, but it won’t accept paper certificates. Instead, travelers must upload their vaccination data onto the Cyprus Flight Pass platform before travel. Many EU countries are also accepting tourists who present a negative RT-PCR test result.
Meanwhile, the UK, which is no longer part of the EU, plans to use its NHS app to display the holder’s testing and vaccination status. The British government is currently working with partners worldwide to make sure the system can be internationally recognized.
The United States is still closed to international travelers, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated. When travel resumes, people will likely need to present proof of vaccination to enter. Currently, there’s no standard vaccination credential, so local governments and private businesses are introducing their own.
Last month, New York became the first state to introduce a COVID-19 vaccine pass to kick-start its economy and resume concerts, sporting events, and large cultural events. Called the Excelsior Pass, it allows the holder to prove their vaccination status with a smartphone app or printout. It’s not available as a travel pass — it only recognizes results from New York test centers. But as travel resumes, we could see apps like this expanded across the country.
Israel took the lead on vaccine passports after a fast vaccine rollout. On May 23, the country opened to a small group of vaccinated travelers, who still need to be tested for COVID-19 before resuming tourism later this summer.
Now retired thanks to a low number of COVID-19 cases, Israel’s “green pass” proved citizens had been vaccinated or recovered from the virus. It was available in digital or paper format and linked to the holder’s health data. It’s not clear whether the app will be rolled out for international travel.
Other countries open to vaccinated travelers, including the Bahamas, Ecuador, and Georgia, accept paper or digital vaccination certificates as proof.