The global pandemic has certainly made travel abroad more complicated, not least because of the additional paperwork demonstrating your vaccination and testing status that is required to leave and reenter the country. But the reality is that you’ve always needed certain essential documents for international trips—COVID just reminds us how important it is to be fully prepared before we go.
Both the CDC and the State Department have compiled country-specific information about COVID-19 restrictions and documentation requirements for international travelers. You can also google “[country] entry requirements,” or some variation thereof, in search of official government or tourist bureau websites that will tell you what you need. Know that regulations are changing frequently, so continue checking in the days leading up to your trip to ensure you’re not missing anything.
Also keep in mind that specific airlines, cruise lines and other modes of transport have their own rules for passengers, so you’ll need to check those before you head out as well.
Here are the essential travel documents to carry with you on your next trip.
What documents do I need for international travel?
Your passport is one of your most important documents when traveling abroad. Make sure that yours has at least six months left until its expiration date—an entry requirement in some countries.
For those going to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and a handful of Caribbean countries by land or sea, a passport card is sufficient. However, only your full passport booklet can be used when crossing borders via plane.
Many countries require travelers to obtain visas, either ahead of time or upon arrival. The in-advance visa process can be lengthy, so be sure to do your research and allow plenty of time before departure to get your documents in order. You can find visa requirements on the State Department’s information page for your destination as well as more about the process to obtain them on the country’s embassy website.
Proof of vaccination
Vaccination requirements vary by country, but if you’re vaccinated against COVID, you’ll definitely want to have proof with you. It’s recommended to carry your physical card, a digital copy or photo of your physical card, and update any digital health app, like Docket or the Excelsior Pass, you regularly use, as not all countries honor every format. You should also double-check which vaccines are accepted by your destination country.
While COVID is currently the most talked-about vaccine, it’s not the only one you need when going abroad. The CDC recommends staying up to date on routine vaccines given here in the United States and checking with any recommendations or requirements for your destination. Vaccination against yellow fever is one of the few hard requirements for entry into certain nations for which you’ll need a record, but depending on the local health issues, there may be other immunizations you should consider.
COVID test results
Like vaccination policies, testing policies for entry vary by country. Some require a negative test even if you’re vaccinated, and you must make sure you get the right kind of test (PCR versus antigen) within the right time frame. Make sure you know the rules, otherwise you may be required to test upon arrival and quarantine in the meantime. Have physical and digital copies of your results on hand.
Also, you are required to take a COVID test prior to returning to the US via air within one day of your flight. Research options for local testing ahead of time, or plan to take an FDA-approved self-test under the direction of a telehealth provider. The requirements are complex, but we’ve got an explainer on the most recent updates. The CDC also has a flow chart outlining the testing and documentation needed for return travel.
To facilitate contact tracing, some countries require international travelers to complete digital locator forms ahead of arrival. You may be asked to provide your in-country address, contact information, flight or other itinerary information, and vaccination and testing status. Again, check the requirements for your specific destination, as these forms may be due within 48–72 hours prior to arrival.
A return ticket
Some countries require visitors to have proof that you plan to exit within the number of days you’re allowed to stay as a tourist. A return ticket or onward ticket—which may be to a different destination or via a different mode of travel—may be requested at the border, so have a physical or digital copy of this ready.
The State Department advises those taking either prescription or over-the-counter medication with them while traveling to check local regulations for your destination, as some substances may be illegal or subject to different rules abroad. You may need a written prescription, and you may only be allowed to carry a limited, 30-day supply of certain drugs.
The International Narcotics Control Board has country fact sheets that outline the documentation needed, though you should always check with the embassy of your destination country for the most up-to-date requirements. The CDC also has a guide to traveling abroad with medicine.
Proof of insurance
Some countries require proof of health insurance or travel medical insurance for entry—in some cases with certain coverage amounts or types of care related to COVID, especially for those who are unvaccinated. Check the requirements for your destination, and then review your insurance policies to determine if additional coverage is needed.
Travel insurance may be useful for delays or cancellations independent of COVID, and you may also need auto insurance coverage if you plan to drive abroad.
Minor child consent
Some countries require documentation of consent to travel from both parents or legal guardians of minor children upon entry. If you are traveling alone with kids, or if you do not have sole legal custody, the State Department recommends checking with the embassy of your destination country to determine if additional documentation is required.
International Driving Permit (IDP)
If you plan to drive abroad, you may need to obtain an IDP. Your US drivers license isn’t valid in every country, and even if it is, you may need a local language translation. An IDP, on the other hand, is recognized in more than 150 nations.
What documents do I need for domestic travel?
For travel within the United States, you’ll definitely need identification—your passport, passport card or driver’s license, for example—and proof of vaccination and/or COVID test results, depending on your airline’s requirements and the health department regulations at your destination. It’s also smart to have all of your insurance information handy.
When it comes to documentation while traveling, overprepared is better than underprepared. You don’t want to get caught without something you need and cannot easily obtain while abroad. Also, if there’s a digital option or app alternative that you can secure with a strong password, consider that over carrying around a stack of paper that’s easy to lose.