What will it be like to travel overseas again?

Australian borders have been closed for international travel since March 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic started its race around the globe. Government data shows that only 1.1 million passengers flew in or out of the country in the 2021 financial year, compared to 42 million in 2019. 

Now that borders are finally starting to reopen, more than half a million international trips have been booked from Australia, as Australians are making plans to reunite with loved ones or dreaming up their next overseas holiday. The demand for overseas travel is only expected to grow as more states open up to the world.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we travel. The complicated web of varying vaccination, testing and quarantining rules ensures that trips are not going to be as simple as checking that you have your passport, visa, ticket & wallet. 

Flying overseas is now much more complicated and involves a lot more paperwork: There are multiple forms to fill in, apps to install on your smartphones, vaccinations and COVID-19 test certificates to carry, and more…

What will it be like to travel overseas again? Where can we go? And what will we have to do before we leave the country? In this article, we will discuss what steps need to be taken when travelling overseas in light of COVID-19 and what travel rules are in different states when returning to Australia.

New rules for Australia

So far Australians have been able to leave and return only if they have received an exemption. Because of the limited number of spaces in the hotel quarantine system, many travellers have struggled to get permission to come back home. There are still more than 40,000 Australians registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade wanting to return back home.

NSW and Victoria were the first states to open for international travel on 1st November. You must be vaccinated, at least 7 days before international travel into or out of Australia, with a vaccine approved or recognised by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) The approved vaccines are Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, China’s Sinovac and India’s Covishield.

Vaccinated passengers flying into Sydney or Melbourne will not have to quarantine at all. Tasmania will welcome vaccinated visitors from interstate and overseas from December 15. Other states will follow suit as they hit their respective vaccination targets. Flights will initially be limited to fully vaccinated Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate families. Students and skilled visa holders can enter Australia without an exemption from December 1 in a significant relaxation of the international border, subject to quarantine arrangements in the state of arrival. 

Tourists from Singapore, South Korea and Japan will also be allowed in with proof of vaccination and a negative test.

You must also provide evidence of a negative COVID-19 PCR test, taken within 3 days of your flight’s scheduled departure, to your airline when you check-in for a flight to travel into Australia.

Australia does not have pre-departure testing requirements for people leaving the country, but the country you are travelling to may have testing requirements. For country-specific travel advice see Smartraveller.( share skyscanner tool)

You should also check with the nearest embassy or consulate of the destination you’re planning to visit for the latest advice on requirements for entry.

How much testing will we have to do?

A cornerstone of COVID-era international travel is COVID-19 testing. The PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test is considered the gold standard in testing. A PCR test detects the presence of the actual virus’s genetic material or fragments of it as it breaks down. PCR is currently the most reliable and accurate test for detecting an active COVID-19 infection. 

Do I need to provide a negative COVID-19 PCR test result for domestic flights?

A negative COVID-19 test is not required for domestic flights. However, it’s best to research your airline and destination to check for any exceptions.

Do I need a COVID-19 test to travel into Australia?

Australia currently requires inbound travellers to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test. This test must be done no earlier than 72 hours ahead of the scheduled departure of your initial flight bound for Australia. If your flight is delayed, your PCR test will still be valid. However, if your flight is cancelled or rescheduled, you may need to retest before your new flight. You may have to take more tests depending upon your arrival state and whether you are subject to quarantine.

Pre-departure testing for COVID-19

Many countries have introduced entry requirements in relation to COVID-19, which may include providing proof of a negative pre-departure COVID-19 test result, depending on the country you're travelling to or transiting through.

We recommend you check the latest airline and government travel requirements well before your departure date to ensure you understand and comply with any test requirements that apply to your trip. This may include the minimum age of passengers who are required to take the test, approved testing providers and test types. You'll also need to ensure you have valid test result documentation to meet the criteria for travel.

When to get your test

Your pre-departure testing window may vary depending on the country you're travelling to and your vaccination status. You'll need to check the airline and government requirements and comply with the most stringent requirement that applies to your trip.

For travel to Australia, you must have evidence of a negative COVID-19 PCR or RT-PCR pre-departure test result, taken no more than 3 days ahead of your scheduled departure time. You may consider getting your test 2 days before departure to allow for any potential flight delays, as long as you can ensure your testing provider can deliver the results in time.

Applying for medical clearance

If you've previously had COVID-19, your pre-departure COVID-19 test can show a positive result even if you're not currently infected. In this case, you'll need to apply for COVID-19 past positive medical clearance in addition to your pre-departure test.

COVID-19 medical clearances are not able to be processed at the airport on your day of departure. You will need to ensure you submit your request at least seven days in advance, otherwise, you may not be able to board your flight. You may also need to carry proof of recovery to comply with individual country requirements.

Where can I get a test?

In Australia, private pathology clinics are the only places at the moment where you can get pre-departure PCR tests. They cost around $150 each. Be sure to check with the clinic whether they provide results certificates valid for travel. On arrival at your destination, you may be required to take additional tests after landing.

While some Australian airports do have onsite testing facilities, it is best to receive your test and results before arriving at the airport. This way you'll avoid lengthy delays and the possibility of missing your flight. It has just been announced that Melbourne, Sydney & Brisbane airports now offer pre-departure COVID tests for $79 and results are available within the hour.

Unfortunately, there is no Medicare rebate at the moment for COVID tests for travel purposes.

How long do COVID test results take?

You will normally receive your COVID test results within 24 hours of testing. This time frame differs based on the testing facility and your area.

For example, a testing facility in a COVID hotspot most likely would take longer to process results than an area with limited cases, due to the increased number of tests. Remote areas may take more time to transport your test to the testing facility than in metro locations.

What happens once I get the results back?

When you take a COVID test, the staff will ask you what format you would like to receive your results in. A text sent to your mobile is the most common format for receiving results. You can also choose between an email or having a printed copy sent to you. The testing facility can provide you with printed evidence that you received a COVID test on the testing date. This also serves as a medical certificate for 24 hours if you need it for work purposes.

When you receive your COVID test results, you will be alerted of the result as positive or negative. You won’t be allowed to travel if the test shows a positive result.

You will only be allowed to travel if the test shows a negative result. Make sure you keep a copy of your results in case you are required to provide them during your travels. However, if you are showing symptoms, it’s advised that you remain isolated and contact a medical practitioner for advice.

Once you are successful in travelling to your destination safely, it’s important to keep up with proper hygiene and COVID-safe practices such as hand washing and social distancing. This will help to protect yourself as well as those around you. Some states and territories have an app that uses a QR code or booking system to help with contact tracing if a case of COVID-19 arises in the community.

Anyone planning an overseas trip will have to budget for the additional cost of taking multiple tests. Each country has different rules and these keep changing. It is best to check the most current arrival rules for your destination prior to travel.

These additional testing costs is feared to put international travel out of reach for many everyday Australians. Travel may once again become only the realm of the more well-off.

What new documents do I need to travel? 

Along with your physical passport, your smartphone will be the most important travel accessory. That’s because smartphone apps will be the easiest way to prove you’ve had the required vaccinations and tests.

Helpful hint: make sure you check whether your passport is up to date - the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade reports that 1.3 million passports have expired since the pandemic began. Having at least 6 months validity past your planned exit date is a requirement for entering some countries.

To leave the country, travellers will be asked to download an international vaccination certificate from MyGov. It includes a QR code that can be used for verification by immigration authorities.

Almost every country you visit will have its own app that is used to prove your vaccination status on arrival. In some cases, you will need to prove that you have been vaccinated to get into restaurants and public spaces. In some countries, such as with Singapore’s TraceTogether app, vaccination is required to go anywhere at all in the country. Some of these apps require Bluetooth for contact tracing, so check your phone's capacity against the requirements of the apps you need to download.

Most airlines will also require a separate app to get you through the check-in counter. Based around the International Air Travel Association’s Travel Pass, passengers can upload their vaccination certificates and test results to the app, indicating to airlines whether they are permitted to fly.

Helpful hint: Make sure you take your Australia SIM card with you, and consider having data roaming enabled. Data roaming starts from around $1 to $3 per day, and allows you to use your Australian SIM overseas. You may need this to log in to your internet banking or myGov services where access codes are sent to the mobile number they have on file.

Those flying into Australia must now submit the new Australia Travel Declaration at least 72 hours before they travel. This includes uploading the details of your vaccination. The Department of Home Affairs will then email you with either a green ticket (no quarantine required), a blue hourglass (quarantine required) or a red cross. The red cross means the airline will decide if you can travel, and if you are allowed, you will have to quarantine on arrival.

Some Australian states may allow inbound travellers to quarantine at home, instead of in a managed quarantine facility. They often use an app to ensure the rules are followed. South Australia and NSW ran a home quarantine trial where returned travellers used an app that randomly prompted them to “check-in” by taking a selfie photograph. Using the geolocation tracking on the phone, the check-in confirmed the traveller was where they should be. The home quarantine trial participants had 15 minutes to respond to a check-in request. If they failed to comply, the authorities followed up with a phone call and then possibly a visit from the police.

What happens if I do get sick while I'm away?

Another big concern for travellers is the risk of being stranded overseas either because they’ve caught COVID-19 or because border rules have changed. Using Rapid Antigen Tests in the leadup to your return is a good way to know early if you've caught COVID-19, rather than waiting for your PCR test 72 hours before you're set to fly.

Catching COVID-19 while you're away would most likely require you to isolate yourself at your destination. This means that the time and money you've put aside for your trip could be wasted, as you're not able to complete the activities you had planned. Isolation requirements do vary in different countries, although in most places you won't be able to leave your accommodation except to get tested or to seek medical care.

If you're staying with other people who aren't sick, you may be required to make alternative arrangements for accommodation. You'll also need to order food, which can increase costs. There may also be added costs in cancelling or rebooking scheduled activities and rescheduling flights.

Does travel insurance cover COVID related costs?

Insurance is even more essential now than it is in normal times. Singapore even has specific travel lanes to expedite travellers who are vaccinated and requires tourists visiting the country to have at least $30,000 insurance cover for COVID-19 related medical expenses.

While before the COVID-19 pandemic, most insurance policies specifically excluded any costs related to a pandemic, insurance policies can now be purchased with specific COVID-19 inclusions. This may cover you for medical treatment if you catch COVID-19 on your travels, some even cover quarantine and flight cancellation costs.

Be sure to look for COVID specific insurance, as some basic policies still exclude pandemic-related cancellations and expenses.

Helpful hint: Australia has reciprocal health care arrangements (RHCAs) with some countries, including the UK and New Zealand. This means that your Medicare card will help cover you for some essential care. Check if any RHCAs cover you for the countries you're headed to, and note any gap payments that may still apply. Insurance will still be essential, though, so don't skimp on your cover.

Tips to stay healthy while you're overseas

Aside from the standard COVID-safe practices such as social distancing, wearing a face mask and regular hand washing, get all your routine health checks in order before you leave.. Travellers should also make sure other vaccinations — apart from COVID — are up to date, including things like hepatitis A, chickenpox, shingles, measles and tetanus.

  • Pack some snacks and drinking water - you may have to queue or have delays. Have some healthy snacks on hand to fight hunger.
  • Avoid restaurants and self-service food wherever possible.
  • Maintain social distancing - Stay 1.5m from others and practice good hand hygiene.
  • Disinfect often - Disinfect items you often use like your phone. Use a disinfectant wipe on handles or buttons before you touch them.
  • Exercise good hand hygiene at all times - wash your hands with soap and water. Avoid touching your face. Cough or sneeze into your arm, elbow or tissue and dispose of the tissue. Wash your hands after coughing or sneezing. Avoid placing hands on high touch surfaces like railings.
  • Stay at home if you are unwell - Help protect others. If you have any symptoms or have been in contact with someone with COVID-19, get tested.'
  • Check-in - When out and about always check in for contact tracing.

What to consider on your return

Even if you had a completely safe and healthy trip, current federal government requirements state that you'll need to book another PCR test within 72 hours of your return flight to Australia. You'll also need to complete a travel declaration online.

If your trip is delayed by a positive COVID test or another health problem, you may need to extend vacation time or study and re-schedule your flights. If you're completely vaccinated and your test comes back negative, there's no need to quarantine when returning to NSW or Victoria. Home quarantine of 10 or 14 days may be allowed in other states if you are completely vaccinated

If you live in a state or territory that hasn't met vaccination targets, you'll have to consider hotel quarantine. The federal government requires that everyone remain quarantined for two weeks if the outbreak is considered "severe." This may cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 per adult.

Airlines are encouraging travellers to re-familiarise themselves with the procedures and check for any updates so that they don't get caught out at the check-in desk after a long period without international travel.

Given the frequent occurrence of local epidemics and border closings, travel abroad may be a luxury that few can afford for some time yet, enjoyed mostly by those with lots of money, time, and patience.


Disclaimer : 

While the information in this article is correct as of the publication date, this article is only meant to be a general guide for travellers. Many of the health and travel regulations change very regularly and we suggest that you check with your local authority to get the most up to date advice. 


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