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USA travel is surprisingly easy – notes from my New York trip

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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.

Statue of Liberty, New York, USA

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.

US CBP customs border protection

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 CBP customs border protection

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.)

Empire State Building NYC

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.

Conclusion

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.

Comments (134)

  • anonymous today! says:

    I flew to LAX in early October with my US citizen spouse. At immigration spouse was waved through and I was taken away despite the protestations of US citizen spouse. I was led by a large armed man to a room in which there were about 50 other people. I was not told why. I had my passport taken away. No one was permitted to use any electronic device (people were checked when going to the loo, and screamed at if they surreptitiously used a phone even for playing games). People were missing flight connections. After about 3 hours with no information or explanation I was interviewed. The questions were the same (as were the answers) as at the immigration desk, and included wanting to know about my bank balance(s). Peremptorily I was released, with no more explanation. My spouse was asleep on the baggage in the reclaim hall. The land of the free! Every US person I told about this experience was embarrassed and said that TSA and the like have taken more and more power and regularly abuse it. Since the advent of Trump things got significantly worse. In the future I shall aim for a smaller airport, but at the time there was little to no choice. If there is a message here, it is do not take any risks with US immigration regulations. Someone in the messages above talks about not taking the required Covid test – a risk not worth taking.

    • Paul Pogba says:

      I’ve had this twice at EWR under Obama, and sailed through at BOS under Trump. I’m not sure the presidents bother themselves with the selection of passengers for secondary passport selection.

  • Andy says:

    Long story short, myself and partner not eligible for an ESTA after being declined a VISA in the past (bane of my life as lots of business meetings in America I should attend)

    Does anyone know when London embassy opening up appointments? Not seeing any until September 2022 currently.

    Or how we can bypass appointment as we already had a 1 year visa that’s now expired.

    Thanks!

    • Richster64 says:

      @Andy, (un)Lucky you. I am in the same boat, and I’m in Canada now. First appointment Jan 2023. 2023!!!
      I wonder if there is the concept of being able to book other people’s cancellations? Or whether they will put more staff on eventually.
      There go my plans for 2022 🙁

    • Heathrow Flyer says:

      I don’t know about the visa appointment situation but normally B1/2 visas are valid for 10 years.

  • mutley says:

    I arrived in JFK on the 8th, and spent less than 5 minutes in immigration via my Global Entry. Since then, I have travelled to Chicago and Detroit for work. The TSA pre check is great, once approved, one doesn’t even need to take laptops out, just bag into the scanner and off you go! I am currently back in NYC. Adherence is very hit and miss dependent on where one travels. In Chicago I saw plenty of mask wearing, in Michigan they are not particularly bothered, and I wasn’t asked once for my Covid status. In New York the wearing of masks is more prevalent, certainly in restaurants and the subway but in both the JW Marriott and the Barclay, many guests were not bothering.

    • Liam says:

      N.B. TSA PreCheck comes free with Global Entry, and is the only way for those of us who aren’t US citizens or Green Card holders to get PreCheck. Global Entry may take some months to get approved, and from memory you have to pass a UK background check (and pay around £40) before doing the US application (around $100), but I would recommend it for anyone who knows they’ll likely be travelling to the US every year, particularly if more than once.

      • ECJ says:

        Hello, I am a UK resident (UK passport holder only) with an active Global entry/TSA pre registration. I got it in 2018 and had my GE interview at YVR on the way to SNA.

        From using it trips after that I remember it’s worked beautifully and I went thru immigration at places including most recently JFK in Dec 2019 using the e-gates and don’t remember speaking to an immigration official at any point.

        I’m due to go to back end in Dec (first trip since 2019 due to covid restrictions etc, so will need a new ESTA tho).

        @mutley, did you see any immigration official at JFK to show/check your vax status?

        I am double vaxxed (no booster yet as too young (35) so not on any list yet). I’ll do all the testing etc exactly as required- I always do everything absolutely by the book and have no wish to do otherwise. I wonder whether I should queue in the regular immigration line or try the gates for GE again?? Your advice is appreciated. Thanks!

        • mutley says:

          @ECJ no , took my paper slip from the GE machine , a quick look at my passport and that was it.
          Regards GE for new applicants , there was a considerable backlog due to government shutdown in 2019 and then Covid in 2020, not sure what the processing time is now. If you are conditionally approved, you can often get an interview appointment at the airport, on arrival or before you depart to UK.

  • Sarah says:

    Is a supervised lateral flow ok ? Is it the same as an antigen test ? The local boots store near me only offers the lateral flow and issues a certificate. But I have been told it’s not sufficient

  • Doug says:

    One subject I cannot see mentioned in the article or in the comments is the requirement to have a covid test two days after arriving in the USA. Am I correct in believing this is still a requirement or is it now optional?

  • Adam says:

    I flew to the US on the 10th to SFO… had the usual early-afternoon 70 min wait at immigration (for new ESTAs) so clearly nothing has changed there lol.

    Returnee ESTAs could use the APCs, but my wife had renewed her passport in the last 2 years so long queue it was. The APC receipt queue looked quite long too though, probably a 10-20 min wait.

    Mask wearing is pretty good in the Bay Area, but not a single establishment so far has asked for a Covid certificate!

  • ECJ says:

    Thank you @mutley! Should be fine then, I’ll try use it as normal and see what happens.

    I found the registration process pretty straightforward although I agree it took a little while! I applied in January 2018, got notification it’d been processed in March & had my interview in April 2018. I’d really recommend it to anyone, saves a lot of time and is good for 5 years ! Although yes – at the moment there would be a huge backlog.

    Thanks for the advice. I’ve been an avid follower of this website for years, living in central London, where else 😀 But this was my first post, so thank you for being kind with your response.

  • Keith says:

    Just flew back from Miami to Edinburgh via LHR after staying for 12 nights. One surprising thing was that on the flight out, after diligently filling in the VERIFLY app, the BA check-in person at Edinburgh didn’t want to see it. The reason given was that as the VERIFLY app could accept NHS covid test (i should point out that mine was not an NHS test but was Expresstest) they couldn’t use the app? I did use it on the return journey though and it was fine. Other than that, everything was fine and went smoothly although don’t expect much mask wearing or social distancing in Florida!

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