International travel restrictions: a snapshot of policies across 17 countries

Looking to board a flight? With travel landscapes constantly reshaped by changing conditions, like Europe’s third wave and increasing vaccine rollout, understanding the similarities and differences across travel policies is critical.

A passenger is tested for COVID-19 at Roissy Charles de Gaulle International Airport
A passenger is tested for COVID-19 at Roissy Charles de Gaulle International Airport, January 2021. IMF Photo/Cyril Marcilhacy

The Oxford COVID-19 Coronavirus Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT) – the largest repository of pandemic policies – gathers information across twenty different indicators related to lockdown, economic, and public health measures, including international travel. We recently conducted an in-depth investigation into COVID-19 international travel policies across a sample of 17 countries: Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, South Korea, the UK, and the USA.

The government response tracker’s original indicator for ‘international travel restrictions’ captures whether a country has screenings, quarantines, bans or a border closure in place to prevent COVID-19 transmission. Through this research we expanded the scope of that indicator and provided additional granularity and insight into countries’ policies on international travel. While the COVID-19 pandemic remains dynamic and these policies will continue to evolve, this data captures a unique snapshot of the international travel policies currently (April 2021) in place across the 17 countries analysed.

Universal adoption of quarantines and entry bans, variance in screening measures 

This analysis first broke down the measures included in the OxCGRT’s indicator on international travel – screening, quarantine, ban, and border closure – to capture granularity in screening measures, as well as the accumulation of these various policies. As shown below, pre-arrival documentation, entry bans and quarantines are the most common measures in place across the sample countries. Pre-arrival documentation can take various forms, including location or contact tracing information or attestations to one’s COVID-19 status and current symptoms.

International travel measures chart

Countries are more divided on the use of health checks, particularly temperature screenings. While temperature checks emerged as a widespread travel policy at the onset of the pandemic, their use has since waned. Countries including the UK and Ireland halted temperature screenings, citing lack of public health efficacy. However, six of the reviewed countries reveal evidence of the continued use of temperature screenings for arrivals. For instance, international airports in Portugal utilise infrared body temperature assessments. Other countries with reports of temperature checks include Israel, New Zealand, Spain, South Korea, France, and Canada. In terms of screening through testing, only Canada, Singapore, and South Korea reported policies in place requiring a COVID-19 test in the airport upon arrival – rather than the more commonly used requirements of a negative pre-departure COVID-19 test, or a post-arrival test several days into quarantine.

Differences in length and enforcement of arrival quarantines

All 17 countries analysed have some form of quarantine in place for international arrivals. Quarantine measures, however, vary significantly across countries in terms of length and enforcement. In terms of length, fourteen days is the most common mandated length for quarantine when looking at the most stringent limit.

Chart showing maximum length of quarantine for international arrivals per country

Both France and Singapore emerged as outliers. France only mandates self-isolation for seven days. Conversely, Singapore requires arrivals who have been in the UK or South Africa to quarantine for 14 days in a government facility, followed by seven days of self-isolation at their home – a total of 21 days in quarantine. Countries also differ on whether early departure from quarantine is possible based on testing. Some countries, like Israel, allow for isolation to end early upon receipt of two negative post-arrival tests. Other countries, like New Zealand, mandate that the entire quarantine period is served regardless of test results. The above graph shows the longest length of quarantine mandated for an international arrival and excludes shorter lengths made possible by a negative test result or arrival from designated ‘green light’ or ‘low risk’ countries.

Countries also have vastly different policies in place around quarantine enforcement. This research analysed the stringency of quarantine enforcement, capturing whether countries implemented no enforcement measures, communication check-ins like phone calls or text messages, location monitoring like a geolocation app or official home visits, or quarantine at a monitored facility rather than at home.

Map showing stringency of quarantine enforcement
Policies on quarantine enforcement where 0= no enforcement measures; 1= communication check-ins; 2= location monitoring; 3= designated facility quarantine.

Red countries, like Australia, mandate partial or total quarantine at a designated facility, rather than at one’s residence. In Israel, police monitor home quarantine and can relocate individuals to a state-designated facility if they break quarantine; however, quarantine at a designated facility can be avoided with compliance. Pink countries, like the United States, do not monitor arrivals’ locations but do have a check-in system in place. Beige countries, like Spain, have no evidence of enforcement measures for quarantine, meaning people quarantine at their own responsibility.

Some countries have multiple enforcement measures in place. For instance, Ireland mandates arrivals from 71 countries to quarantine in special hotels; in addition, there have been reports of police conducting home visits to ensure compliance for people quarantining at home. As of 17 April 2021, Ireland allows for vaccination exemptions. Arrivals from these designated countries who can prove they are fully vaccinated with Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca or Janssen as well as provide a negative PCR test can complete their 14-day quarantine at home instead of at a hotel facility. 

Looking forward: the emergence of vaccine passports

As vaccination becomes more widespread, particularly in the Global North, countries are discussing the possibility of a ‘vaccine passport’ allowing for easier international travel. Vaccine passports describe the ability to use one’s vaccination status to avoid travel bans or restrictions, like mandatory quarantines. These passports are likely to take the form of a mobile app where health documentation can be stored. Of the sample reviewed here, only Israel has an operational vaccine passport system allowing for travel to Cyprus and Greece using either a paper certificate or mobile app connected to their individual vaccination data.

Of the sample analysed here, eight countries – France, Germany, Japan, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, South Korea, and the United States have a version of a vaccine passport planned or in trial. Six more countries – Australia, Canada, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, and the UK – demonstrate active public consideration of vaccine passports. While this project analysed vaccine passports at the international level, some countries have also raised the idea of vaccine passports for unrestricted domestic and regional travel. In March 2021, the EU announced its intention to have a functioning vaccine passport ready by June. As the Northern Hemisphere enters summer, eager holiday travellers and countries dependent on tourism dollars are likely to continue pushing for the adoption of vaccine passports.

Jessica Anania is a research assistant with the Blavatnik School’s Oxford COVID-19 Coronavirus Government Response Tracker.

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