Last week I was on the first Virgin Atlantic flight to New York since entry restrictions were eased. Not only did I get to experience a once-in-a-lifetime moment like the synchronised takeoff but I was also one of the first people to experience how the USA has adapted to covid and what travelling there is like.
I received a lot of questions on Instagram asking how I found the experience, so I thought it was worth looking at what travel to the United States is like ‘right now’.
The good news is that travelling to the USA is actually really easy.
Entry testing requirements
You can read our full article about USA entry requirements here but, fundamentally only the fully vaccinated are allowed in and you will need to do a covid test.
This can be as basic as a self-administered lateral flow test, although the official guidelines state that these must be carried out under ‘real-time video supervision’. It’s not clear how this is enforced in practice as the US Customs and Border Protection seem to take a fairly hands-off approach to the whole procedure.
Immigration at JFK was …. fine?!
The last time I was on a Virgin Atlantic press trip – on the A350 inaugural – we were queuing for over two hours before speaking to an immigration officer.
JFK – and US airports in general – are notoriously bad, although that time was definitely the worst I have ever experienced.
This time couldn’t have been more different. Whilst a large swell of passengers arrived, both from our flight and (I think) another, the queue moved quickly and I was through within fifteen minutes or so.
Our flight was, to be fair, the first transatlantic flight to land at JFK Terminal 4 so we may just have beaten the masses, but I was still impressed. I imagine CBP had prepared for a large influx in visitors as borders re-opened and it didn’t seem like there were any teething issues ramping up capacity.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be long queues again, of course. Immigration in the US can be highly variable – you never really know what you’ll encounter until you’re through. It will be interesting to see how other people’s experiences compare over the coming weeks.
US Customs and Border Protection do not routinely check covid documentation
As I mentioned above, the CBP appears to be taking a hands-off approach and letting the airlines deal with the entry requirement compliance. Nobody in my group was asked to show proof of covid vaccination or provide a negative test result – although you should still make sure you carry this with you, just in case.
The immigrations officer asked all the usual questions (how long I was staying and what I was doing) and then waived me on. It was all very easy.
You don’t have to complete a long-winded passenger locator form
If you are trying to find a passenger locator form for your next trip to the United States you won’t find one, because it doesn’t exist.
The US has kept it simple, unlike the UK government which has – as I’m sure you’ve experienced by now – one of the most long-winded covid passenger forms I’ve encountered.
The only thing you need to complete is your ‘attestation’. This is effectively you confirming that you comply with the entry regulations, are fully vaccinated and have a negative covid test taken within the required time frame.
This is administered by your airline (you can find the Virgin Atlantic one here, for example) and simply requires you to confirm your status. Easy peasy.
Landing cards are a thing of the past
Another piece of admin has also been simplified, with landing cards no longer required. These were previously handed out on flights to the USA or completed at terminals in the immigrations hall. They were handed to an officer after baggage collection.
The CBP now collects all arrivals and departure information electronically and biometrically, saving you the hassle of completing and submitting an extra slip of paper.
(Virgin Atlantic tells me this depends on the airport so some US flights may still require them, but not to New York JFK.)
Mask wearing is stricter than in the UK
Mask policies vary state to state and potentially even city to city. In New York City masks are far more prevalent than in London, although it doesn’t appear to be particularly enforced.
Wearing masks is most common at airports and on public transport, where it is legally mandated.
Other public areas take varying approaches. Whilst almost all places say they recommend mask wearing it doesn’t appear to be required. You will find different levels of compliance at different venues. In some places it is not necessary if you are fully vaccinated, for example.
Some people even choose to wear masks outdoors, although this is a small minority.
The bottom line is that you should have a mask to hand whilst out and about in New York.
Have your NHS covid pass ready
The other big difference to London – although perhaps not other European countries – is that you need to show your vaccination certificates almost everywhere. Restaurants, bars, theatres, food halls and other tourist attractions will want to see this on entry.
The good news is that you don’t need to download a special app – the NHS vaccination certificate is fine although you may have to talk people through the document details as it is clearly different to the US ones.
Some places require you to show ID at the same time, to ensure you are who you say you are, so make sure you’ve got both. I didn’t have any problems with my NHS covid pass and UK driving licence.
The United States has a bit of a reputation for difficult immigration procedures but I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly and easy the whole process was. Documents are checked at check-in, not by immigration officers, and the lack of a long passenger locator form make things much simpler.
Out and about in New York City things are different but not particularly complicated. Just remember to keep a mask and your NHS covid pass on you and you will be able to do pretty much everything you were able to do pre-covid.
I will be back in the United States in two weeks to visit friends over Thanksgiving and I am confident that I will have just as smooth an experience. It really is very easy.