So you tested positive for Covid. Here’s what you need to do to travel internationally to or from the USA after recovering from the coronavirus.
It happened to me. I was scheduled to travel from the USA to Argentina. My flight and hotel were already booked. I had what felt like a mild cold, but I wasn’t too worried since I’d gotten my double shot of the Covid vaccine plus a booster, and Omicron news coverage was still early. I’d previously taken a Covid test when I had a similar cold a month prior and it came back negative that time. So a day before my flight I took the required PCR Covid test and was surprised when the result came back positive.
While I quarantined at home, I started searching for what I’d need to do and how long I’d need to wait to travel again. Unfortunately, finding reliable information on the subject was harder than I expected, since although there’s plenty of info online discussing travel during the pandemic, little of it is about international travel after having come down with the virus. I’ll share the most important details I learned here, but keep in mind that policies vary by country and regulations can change.
Sherpa has by far the best map I’ve found that shows countries open to travel. There are options to change the map based on your passport, origin country, and whether you’ve been vaccinated.
First things first: See if you can get a refund for your trip. Many providers are sympathetic to catching Covid and will refund you even when their policies say otherwise.
I contacted American Airlines, which has a no refund / no change policy on Basic Economy seats. Nevertheless, I called them up. They told me what I expected, that refunds or changes were not possible. I was polite and mentioned I had gotten a positive Covid test. That was enough for them to check with a supervisor and grant a one-time exception. I’d just have to call them up and book a new flight over the phone within the next year. Great!
Next, I contacted my hotel, which had a cancelation fee. Again, when I mentioned my positive Covid test, they happily made an exception and waived the fee.
Get a Positive PCR Test ASAP
If you used a home kit, took an antigen test, or suspect you might have had Covid, you’ll want to get a positive PCR test that you can use for travel as soon as possible. That’s because the date of the test will start the clock for when you can travel—typically two weeks later.
This step is critical even if you’ve already recovered because, after contracting Covid, tests might continue to come back positive for up to three months. So you shouldn’t count on being able to show a future, negative test result. Additionally, for 90 days after getting a positive test result, you actually have travel advantages since you won’t need to get additional tests each time you fly, and won’t need to get tested again upon arrival (which some countries require).
If your flight back to the States will be more than 90 days after your positive Covid test, I recommend getting a pack of home tests from eMed. Unlike other home kits, these antigen tests are accepted by the USA for travel into the country because they require the test to be examined by a medical professional who observes over a video call. So this option is a lot more convenient and likely cheaper than the tests you’d otherwise need to get abroad.
Get a Doctor’s Note
Showing a positive PCR test that was taken at least two weeks ago is not all you’ll need to do. You also need to show a doctor’s note clearing you for travel that was written at least 10 days after the test. Both Argentina and the United States require a doctor’s note, so I’m guessing many other countries do as well.
From CDC.gov’s page about traveling to the US:
If you have had a positive viral test on a sample taken during the past 90 days, and you have met the criteria to end isolation, you may travel instead with your positive viral test results and a signed letter from a licensed healthcare provider or a public health official that states you have been cleared for travel. The positive test result and letter together are referred to as “documentation of recovery.”
A letter from your healthcare provider or a public health official that clears you to end isolation, e.g., to return to work or school, can be used to show you are cleared to travel, even if travel isn’t specifically mentioned in the letter. The letter must have information that identifies you personally (e.g., name and date of birth) that matches the personal identifiers on your passport or other travel documents. The letter must be signed and dated on official letterhead that contains the name, address, and phone number of the healthcare provider or public health official who signed the letter.CDC.gov: From the FAQ section “What if I recently recovered from COVID-19?”
Argentina had very similar requirements as the US, although their information online was not as specific.
So where can you get this letter? If there’s a local doctor you go to regularly, that might be the easiest and cheapest option. I wanted to find some way to get it online, but only found one option: QuickMD. See their page Traveling with Recent COVID-19 Infection: How to Get a ‘Documentation of Recovery’ Letter to Be Cleared to Travel. They can provide this letter for $75 during a video call that you schedule online. Although this might be a good option for many people in the US, it didn’t work for me because they don’t have their own medical professionals in my home state of South Dakota. So instead, I scheduled a “Covid consult” with a local doctor, and after explaining what I needed, they were happy to oblige. It didn’t seem like they’d done it before though, so I’ll provide the text of the letter below in case it’s helpful for you to guide your own doctor on what you need.
Steven Levithan, DOB: <date>
To whom it may concern:
Please be advised that Steven Levithan reports testing positive for COVID-19 on <date>. Based on the information they’ve provided regarding their symptoms, they have met the current CDC criteria to end isolation as of <date>. According to current CDC guidlines, they are not required to retest for 90 days from the date their positive test was obtained. They are cleared to travel.
<signature, name, and NPI number>
With that document and my positive Covid test in hand, I had no trouble with my soon-following flight to balmy Buenos Aires.
Some countries require you to have medical insurance that covers Covid and will apply within their borders. If you don’t already have insurance that will cover you internationally, SafetyWing is a low-cost option and covers Covid.
Having this information upfront would have saved me a lot of hassle and worry. I hope it’s useful for you! Let me know any other Covid travel tips you have or how this process might differ for other countries.