Written by Isaac McQuistion
Figuring out visas and navigating entry restrictions was challenging even before the COVID-19 pandemic. It is even more so now, as travelers try to plan trips while keeping track of a multitude of shifting variables and criteria, not to mention all the attendant health and safety concerns.
The unfortunate truth is that the normal we knew in 2019 is gone, at least for a while, and we will have to get comfortable picking our way through the thicket of regulations and restrictions if we want to continue engaging with the world.
So, how do we do that? The bottom line is that it is hard but not impossible. Here are some steps to take and things to think about when trying to plan your next international trip. For now, we are going to focus primarily on how to navigate travel restrictions.
Evaluate your own health and the health of those around you.
This does not directly relate to travel restrictions, but it is in many ways the most important question to ask yourself before you take part in any trip. Traveling carries with it some risk. Even if there is some data out there suggesting that flying might be safer than we originally thought, you are still putting yourself into a situation where you have less control and a higher potential for exposure.
That is to say nothing of the state of the pandemic in the country you are traveling to and how taxed their health system might be. It is also well-established by now that the coronavirus hits people who are immunocompromised or have certain pre-existing conditions much harder than others. Even if that does not describe you, it could describe someone you are close to.
People who are young and healthy can get seriously ill and need hospitalization, so you need to seriously consider if your need to travel is worth the risks that come with it. The strain that COVID-19 has put on healthcare systems and the difficulty of evacuating people if they need upgraded medical care also makes it even more important for you to get all of the recommended vaccinations and medications for your destination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website is a great place to get this info.
Check if your country is allowing foreign nationals to enter and under what circumstances. The U.S. passport is no longer the magic key that gets you into whatever country might strike your fancy to visit. As demonstrated by the European Union’s decision not to allow any travelers from the U.S., a U.S. passport can actually be a hindrance.
Check first to see if the country you want to travel to is allowing people into the country. If so, find out if there are restrictions on where those travelers are coming from. Even if a country says that foreign nationals from a certain country are barred, it is worth checking fine print. Even though the EU has said that U.S. travelers are barred, it is not legally binding, meaning that it is up to each member country to decide if and how to abide by that order. There are also many exceptions to that policy, including one for students. But again, countries vary on who they consider to be a student.
So where do you find this information? A favorite resource that we like to use is International SOS (ISOS). Their website lists entry restrictions by country in a fairly high level of detail. To access it, go to their dedicated COVID-19 website and enter in the UT membership number: 11BSGC000037.
Give yourself plenty of time to get a passport and/or visa.
Ok, so you have determined that you need to travel, that your personal health is such that you can travel, and that the country you want to go to will let you in. Next, you need your travel documents.
The U.S. Department of State had a backlog of close to two million passport applications earlier this summer. They are working to get through it and it is now under a million, but if you are planning international travel and you do not have a passport or you need to renew your current one, you need to send your application in as soon as possible.
Once you have your passport, you need to look into whether you need a visa. To determine whether and what kind of visa you need, you should check with the embassy of the country you are planning to travel to. They will be able to give you most up-to-date guidance. They will also be able to tell you if they are processing visa applications and how long of a wait to expect.
Find out what you need to do to get into the country.
Many, if not most countries, have a set screening procedure you will need to follow if you want to get in. That could involve temperature checks, completing a health attestation form, downloading a particular app, giving a list of your in-country contacts and places you plan to stay to the authorities, providing negative test results issued within so many days of your arrival in the country or a two-week quarantine, among others. You need to know what the procedures are ahead of time so you do not get all the way to South Korea, only to discover that you cannot get into the country because you did not fill out a certain form.
You also need to prepare. If you need a negative test, know what kind of test they are requiring, where you can get one and if you can get the results back in the timeframe needed.
If you will need to quarantine, find out if that has to happen in a government-sanctioned facility or if you can quarantine at a location of your choosing. Will you need to pay for it? What will accommodations be like? How will compliance be monitored? These and others are all things you will want to know ahead of time. ISOS is a great resource for finding this information.
Find out what you need to do while you are in-country.
So you made it to your destination and are safely out of the airport and on your way. Now what? Your country will almost certainly have other restrictions that you will need to comply with and it is your responsibility to know what those are.
Will you need to wear a mask and is there a fine if you do not? Is there a curfew in place? How will you get around if public transit is not running or you do not feel comfortable taking it? Is there a limit on the number of people who can be together at once? What if you need to take a test while you are there? How do you go about getting one? ISOS will have much of this information.
If your travel is UT-sponsored, make sure you apply for approval and register your trip.
You need to get approval from the University and register your travel with us if your travel is related to your studies at UT. This is not just a bureaucratic obstacle you need to get around, it could quite literally save your life.
When you register with UT, it means we are able to assist you in an emergency. It also enrolls you in the University’s Overseas Insurance plan, which provides you with 100% coverage of medical costs, up to $200,000.
Continually monitor updates.
The rules and regulations for getting into other countries change quite literally by the day. For instance, the United Kingdom announced that France was no longer on its list of safe countries, and if Britons who were in France on vacation wanted to avoid a quarantine, they had to get back to the U.K. by 4 a.m. Saturday. This set off a mad scramble for the airport. Even if you have thoroughly researched a country a few months before your planned trip, you need to be checking back regularly to make sure the rules for getting in have not changed and it is still feasible for you to go.
That’s it! Yes, it is a lot. But as the world makes progress in containing the virus and learns more about which measures work and which do not, it will likely get easier. We may even start to see some standardization across countries. Until then, travelers need to do all of the research that they can to ensure they can navigate these new rules and regulations.