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 vaccine or negative tests, and digital travel pass apps? Here's what you need to know.

If you’re seeing 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 just 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 requiring it already. And since there’s no one common system, that may mean you need to take the initiative and be prepared for some thoroughly unglamorous paperwork.

Woman with her trolley suitcase going towards her friend
What vaccination proof do you need to fly? ©Getty Images

How to prove your vaccination status to travel overseas

Some countries or regions are developing their own "vaccine passport" app systems to kickstart travel. Some of them can be included as part of your airline’s app, and some are separate. They work in a variety of ways, but they’re mainly based on the input, processing and output of your documents, proving either your test status or vaccination information. On the input side, it could be automatically linked in with private testing companies, use QR-codes like the proposed European Digital Green Certificate, or require you to take and send a picture of your document, before traveling. With a vaccination record being 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 or not the document you sent them means that you’re okay to fly. It may, however, need help from a data center of real humans, some AI analysis, or most likely a combination of all three. 

Young woman getting vaccinated
Countries that have opened up to vaccinated tourists are accepting digital or paper health certificates ©Getty Images

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 centre. If you live somewhere 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 other medical professional to stamp and sign. 

It's a good idea to keep a record of correspondence between yourself 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 one single airline system that manages the various vaccination and testing requirements. The closest we have right now 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 more complicated as newer vaccines and variants emerge, but in the meantime it depends where you’re traveling and how you’re getting there. 

Introducing Europe

How to prove you've been vaccinated to travel to Europe

The European Union (EU) is working on implementing a Digital Green Certificate in June, which would facilitate travel between its member states and third countries, including the US. The certificate is proof that an individual traveler has either 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 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 (WHO) for emergency use. 

The plans for the certificate still need to be approved, but here's how it could work. According to the EU: the certificate will be 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 uploaded to a mobile device with the individual's COVID-related health information displayed in the national language, as well as in 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 will also be available. 

A waitress with a face mask and disposable gloves takes an order in a cafe in Athens
Greece is accepting vaccinated tourists ©dpa/picture alliance/Getty Images

Until it's introduced, "member states should be able to accept certificates from non-EU countries based on national law, taking into account the ability to verify the authenticity, validity and integrity of the certificate and whether it contains all relevant data,” according to EU officials.

Read more: How Europe aims to open to vaccinated travelers

Some European countries are pushing ahead with their own plans to allow vaccinated travelers in. Greece, Croatia and Iceland, for example, are accepting vaccinated travelers already. Travelers just need to present a digital or paper public health vaccination cards or certificates as proof of inoculation upon arrival; for example, Americans can present their CDC-issued vaccination card, while for British travelers it's their NHS paper card. The certificate must prove that vaccination was completed at least 14 days before arrival. Spain and Italy may introduce a similar recommendations later this month. 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 across the world to make sure that system can be internationally recognized.

Woman sitting at the waterfront in Brooklyn
New York has introduced its own vaccine passport ©Westend61/Getty Images

What proof of vaccination do you need to travel to the US?

The US is still closed to international travelers, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated. When travel resumes, it's likely that people will need to present proof of vaccination to enter. Currently there is 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 kickstart its economy and resume concerts, sports games 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.

Panoramic view of the Tel-Aviv public beach on Mediterranean sea
Israel is hoping to accept vaccinated travelers this summer ©Aleksandar Todorovic/Shutterstock

What about the rest of the world?

Israel is taking the lead on vaccine passports after a fast vaccine roll-out. On May 23 it will open the country to a small group of vaccinated travelers, who will still need to be tested for COVID-19, before resuming tourism later this summer. In Israel citizens use a "green pass" to prove they have been vaccinated or recovered from the virus; it's available in digital or paper format and links to the holder's health data. It's not clear whether the app will be rolled out for international travel. For now, foreign nationals cannot access the pass, nor can vaccinated citizens who are not insured with an Israeli healthcare provider, according to the BBC.

Other countries open to vaccinated travelers, including the Bahamas, Ecuador, and Georgia are accepting paper or digital vaccination certificates as proof.

This article was originally published on March 25, 2021 and updated by Sasha Brady on May 13, 2021. 

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This article was first published December 2020 and updated May 2021

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