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International travel may require a vaccination passport next year. Viorel Kurnosov/EyeEm/Getty Images
  • The International Air Transport Association is in the final stages of developing a digital COVID-19 vaccine passport for travelers.
  • Most airlines have yet to announce if they’ll require passengers to show proof of getting the vaccine.
  • Travelers should expect to continue wearing masks and social distancing on flights, even after getting immunized.

After grinding to a near halt during the pandemic, travel is poised to make a major comeback in 2021, once the COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely distributed.

Governments and airlines may begin requiring travelers to get the immunization and prove it with a new form of digital documentation called a vaccine passport.

Here’s what we know so far about the forthcoming vaccine passport, along with some expert insight on what to expect when traveling next year.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), an airline trade association that represents 290 airlines worldwide, announced on Nov. 23 that it was in the final stages of developing a digital vaccine passport for travelers.

Dubbed the IATA Travel Pass, the digital health document will provide travelers with a way to get a certification of things like their vaccination status and COVID-19 test results from medical facilities and share that information with airlines and border authorities.

Travelers would carry their certified COVID-19 health information via a new contactless app from the IATA.

Alan Joyce, the chief executive officer of the Australian airline Qantas, has told journalists that he thinks getting vaccinated against COVID-19 (and likely proving they had the immunization) will be a necessity before getting on a flight.

Other airlines are still mum about possible requirements on their flights, but experts say that travelers should expect to show proof of immunization once the vaccine becomes available to most people in the United States, likely next spring.

“Airlines don’t want to be accused of serving as vectors for the virus in passengers on board,” said Dr. Robert Quigley, senior vice president and global medical director of International SOS, a health and security services firm, and MedAire, which offers training, medical equipment, and other services for flight crew and passengers.

“It’s all about protecting against the transmission of the disease and not bringing it into areas that aren’t infected,” he added.

So far, experts like Quigley believe that the vaccine passport will mainly apply to international trips, rather than domestic journeys, but travelers should keep an eye out for announcements from airlines over the coming months to ensure they have the right documentation for upcoming flights.

Travelers should also stay up to date on vaccination requirements and other measures destinations may implement on foreign visitors next year.

While the proposed vaccination passport has made headlines over the last couple of weeks, showing proof of immunization at certain borders is nothing new.

The yellow fever vaccine is sometimes required for travelers coming from or going to countries where there’s a risk of that disease, such as Uganda and Brazil.

Travelers typically show proof of their yellow fever vaccination at borders using the World Health Organization’s “International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis,” a yellow booklet filled out by a physician.

“The yellow booklet for the yellow fever vaccination is sort of an obsolete solution from a time when everything was written on paper,” said Dr. Martin Krsak, an infectious disease specialist with the UCHealth Infectious Disease/Travel (TEAM) Clinic at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

What’s new about the forthcoming vaccination passport is the digitization of the health information, which would offer a more streamlined way for border agents and airlines to vet the growing number of travelers who will likely soon be required to show proof of immunizations at many more places around the world.

Just because you get the COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t mean you won’t have to follow other precautions that have become common when traveling during the pandemic.

“There will be continued efforts by airlines, airports, and the travel industry as a whole to focus on hygienic best practices,” said Quigley. “That’s a good thing, it’s long overdue, and I think it will persist perhaps even forever.”

Travelers should expect to continue wearing masks and social distancing on their journeys over the next year, said Krsak.

They may be exempt from other requirements, such as quarantining at the destination, once they have proof of vaccination, though.

“Essentially the major improvement offered by the vaccination passport would be freer mobility,” he said. “Some particularly strict lockdowns would no longer apply to the carriers of such passports.”

For now, travelers should continue to monitor what’s going on in the industry in regard to the vaccine passports and other requirements.

“It’s still very fluid and we don’t know what’s going to happen with regard to these passports,” said Quigley. “They’re strongly encouraged in the industry, and that initial notice by the IATA is the first indication that something is going to change in the industry.”