The Shamefully Difficult Process to Re-Enter the United States (Trip Report)

American, Trip Reports

After a relaxing week on the beach outside Puerto Vallarta, it was time to return to the real world. But I can’t talk about getting back to the real world until I explain the process of what has to happen before even boarding an airplane from a foreign country, and that’s the plan for today. To say it’s a mess would be an understatement.

Now that all arrivals into the US are required to produce a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours 3 days before travel, most hotels have made it easy for travelers to get it done. Unlike many, however, the Conrad Punta de Mita didn’t include the cost of the test. They just made a ballroom at the hotel available for a third party to come in and do the work.

When we checked in, the hotel gave us forms to fill out and asked us if we wanted an antigen or PCR test. Antigen at $65 is half the price, it’s faster, and that’s all the US requires. I had no idea why we’d want anything else, and the hotel had no reason either. They told us to come at 8:30am to a ballroom the day before travel. We didn’t argue, but I later realized that was not a smart strategy.

Since the US allows tests taken within 72 hours 3 days of travel to be accepted, I’d suggest doing it as close to the limit as possible in case there are any issues. We all tested negative, so it wasn’t a problem, but they had to send us an email a few hours later, we had to check for accuracy, and then they said they’d have it printed out at the front desk that night. This was anxiety-inducing since it wasn’t clear how the process would go. Extra time is always good.

As it turned out, when we got the email, the birthdate month and day were transposed for my wife and kids since my wife had filled it out MMDD instead of DDMM. We had no idea if this would be a problem or not, but we emailed them and then a couple hours later we had them fixed.

At this point, I went down one path while my family went down another. I had downloaded Verifly on my phone since American partners with them for incoming travel. I set up my trip to the US with flight details, and it told me along the way what I needed to do in order to get back home. I uploaded a copy of my COVID test, it made me fill out an attestation form for the US government, and finally I had to complete a checklist. After that, the app put a big green check mark next to the impressively awful picture I had taken of myself when setting the thing up, indicating I was good to go.

My wife did not download the app, but we didn’t really care since the kids didn’t have a phone to download it to anyway. (American tells me that the week after our trip, the app began supporting multiple travelers, so that’s good news for families.) She and the kids didn’t have to do anything until we got to the airport… except to get a paper copy of the test results, something I apparently wouldn’t need thanks to Verifly. (At least, nobody checked mine.)

We didn’t pick up the test results the night of the test, but we instead waited until we checked out the next morning when I almost forgot to ask (and the front desk agent didn’t mention anything). Fortunately, I remembered before we left, and they were right there waiting for us.

I tried to check-in on my phone, but American says you can’t do that. I’m not sure why I would have expected any different. We arrived at the airport a little more than 2 hours before departure, and it wasn’t very crowded but it was chaotic.

In front of the line for the American ticket counter, there was a makeshift table that acted as a gateway for all travelers. Since I had Verifly, I just showed them my phone with the checkmark and I was allowed to pass through to the line for the counter. The rest of the family, however, had to present the copy of the test results and then they were given the attestation form to sign while we waited in line.

It’s unclear why they had four counters right next to each other being used when there were multiple empty spots on the side. They could have spread out, but they did not.

It took awhile to get checked in. They had to check all the documentation, tag the bag, and all the usual stuff, but then there was this mess:

We used the QR code on the right to download the health form for the Mexican authorities which we found out after asking that required just one per household. I filled that out on my phone as we waited, and I’m glad I did. When we went upstairs, they had set up multiple tables for people to fill them out in writing, and we jumped ahead of all those crowds, after some confusion.

Then I used the QR code on the left to fill out the Los Angeles COVID form saying that we understood the LA County rules about quarantining. Every adult has to do that one, but nobody is checking anywhere along the way, so it seemed pretty useless. Oh, and we had to pay the bag fee, which I forgot about, because the credit card only waives fees for dometic travel. Damnit. This whole process was shockingly confusing, and I’m a savvy traveler. I can only imagine the confusion it causes others.

Once we passed the gauntlet of health form tables, they checked on my phone to see we’d filled out the form (but never scanned the QR code or looked at the details), and then they took our temperatures. After that we were in the regular security line where things moved as normal. Finally.

29 comments on “The Shamefully Difficult Process to Re-Enter the United States (Trip Report)

  1. I can comment on my recent return trip from Cancun. Most of the resorts in Cancun have onsite testing and include the cost of testing in the price of the stay (they will even let you stay in quarantine for free if your test results are positive). We arranged a time, went to the designated conference room and had the nurse take our samples (5 minutes). The next morning our results were waiting at the concierge.

    I also chose American Airlines to fly us back to the US. At the airport, I handed my negative test result along with the passport at check-in. The airline worker finished check-in (I had done most of it via the AA website) and stapled our test results to the boarding pass. We were given a short health form to fill out which we had to show before entering the security line. This added maybe 5 minutes to the typical airport experience.

    In the US we completed immigration via the computer terminal that scans your passport, asks a few questions and then prints a receipt. The US immigration officer never looked at, or asked for, our COVID results. He simply did a quick passport check and waived us through.

    Through the entire entry experience, only the AA employee who performed the check-in in Cancun ever glanced at our COVID tests. The health questionnaire we received in the Cancun airport was quickly looked-at before airport security, but never again. In summary, the new COVID requirements added 5 minutes for our in-hotel tests to be performed, and another 5 minutes at the airport to fill in a brief form. Not difficult at all.

    1. Sounds like they’ve got it mostly sorted out in CUN. That’s a long way from the end of January, when the entire structure seemed to be based on someone “knowing a guy,” and communicating via WhatsApp.

    2. I did the exact same trip (PVR – LAX ) in March…easy peasy…. filled out the same forms …only need one attestation for my wife and myself….to call it shamefully difficult is an awful exaggeration…not at all factual…but it does make for a good headline…I’ll give you that.

      1. Cranky seemingly does this; exaggerated attempts to get portion of trip refunded., notice comment abt bag fee, lol!
        Besides, why anyone would travel, esp with children, barring emergency, outside of their own state, much less country, during global pandemic is way beyond my comprehension…?

  2. We were vaccinated so we went to Akumal Bay in February. The hotel assigned appointments for the included test. We had our results on paper in 15 minutes. We used the Verifly app and uploaded a picture. We were veriflied (ha) in about 15 minutes. Worked great. Was a little shocked and unaware of the further requirement at the airport for a paper or digital attestation. The digital was not user friendly and one person who had done it said, “just put anything in the blanks to get through it.” Nice. Eyewash.

    It was just two of us, both with phones so not bad.

    1. Yeah, I’m sticking to the US for a while longer. Though I really want to go back to me beloved Grand Cayman ASAP.

  3. I hate that American’s credit cards don’t waive checked bag fees on trans border flights – especially since its the same pricing as domestic. I’ve actively avoided AA for flights between Mexico and the US because of this (including one time last fall when I canceled my return flight and rebooked on United)

  4. Since July, I have leisure-travelled internationally seven times, including three times since the U.S. has required proof of a negative Covid test within 72.hours of return. Mr. Snyder commented that no one seemed to know why someone would pay full price for a PCR test when a much cheaper and less invasive Antigen test would suffice. The answer is that the savvy traveller takes the Antigen test 48 hours to departure. IF the Antigen test is positive, then you take the full PCR test the following day. If the PCR test comes back negative (which, evidently, many do as the Antigen test seems to have more false positives than the full PCR test), then you still get on your flight the following day. So that’s the purpose of the two-tiered testing availability: the PCR test is the backup test to (hopefully) get you out of a country that has little interest in quarantining or perhaps even treating a stranded visitor. In fact, I have even travelled to a place which requires you to purchase health insurance from them for the length of your stay, a nice revenue stream, similar to checked luggage fees: you now pay for what used to be free.

  5. I went to Cabo in March. Had to pay $75 each for a test but it was done on site. They sent emails with a code…we showed that at the airport…no other issues. It was very easy. Sounds like CF had an unlucky experience l.

    Ps y’all please keep the politics out of this blog! I say that as a person who loves to argue politics…but in the right place. This ain’t it.

    1. Jonathan – For the return? Probably next week. I just slot it in when there isn’t something better to talk about.

  6. Can’t you just show the negative test result on your phone instead of a hard copy?

    And, if the CDC has now sanctioned international travel for fully vacinnated travelers, why do we still need to obtain a test to re-enter the US?

    1. Al – They told us we needed the paper printout, but I have no idea what they would have done if we had shown up with just a copy on the phone.

      As for vaccinated travelers, great question. You’ll have to ask the feds…

    2. I returned from Cabo almost 2 weeks ago. I had the negative Covid test email on my phone and that’s what I showed to them. I didn’t have a paper print out. That worked for me.

  7. For the past year, I’ve been avoiding air travel like the plague. And this was far more driven by not wanting to deal with the pure bureaucratic BS of flying as opposed to any fear of getting COVID and dying some horrible death. Your post illustrates exactly why I continue to be reticent about getting back in the air – especially for international travel. The testing rigmarole and cost is pretty significant (especially for a family) and process for return sounds just brutal. The departure day that you describe sounds like it wasn’t crowded. Can you imagine how this would be at the airport if demand was higher and you had crowds and long lines? Clearly, this could take forever to get through. No thanks.

  8. Meanwhile, in Canada…..

    I don’t understand this desperation to travel out of the country. I have not left my home city in the last 15 months. I do not know any family, friends or acquaintances who have taken vacations outside of our province in the last 15 months. The Canadian government leaned on the Canadian airlines to cancel all flights to Mexico and the Caribbean until the end of April. As you probably know, it also cancelled the Alaska cruise season for the second year in a row. That is devastating for little places in Alaska that live off cruises. So why not cruise out of Seattle and avoid any Canadian ports? Can’t. Is it the Jones Act or some such? Your problem. Unsolved. Still.

    I recognize that there has to be some essential travel e.g. hundreds of truckers cross our border every day. However, provincial and federal governments here would not be looking kindly on holidays in Mexico.

    1. I am sorry you and your fellow countrymen are still in lockdown for no good scientific reason. It is a shame your country is anti-science, but you are obviously not alone. Half of Americans are also anti-science — preferring to worship non-pharmaceutical interventions that are now obviously wholly ineffective — but our elites like to travel, so we get to travel.

  9. By the time all the various entities figure out what to do about the pandemic, it will be largely over. That’s another iteration of Murphy’s Law.

  10. Even though it has no place on this blog, I was willing to let the political “southern border” banter go on… until it turned into personal attacks. That entire thread has been removed.

    1. Thanks, Brett. Whether I agree with the opinions or not, I always appreciate blogs that are a break from the usual acrimony and drama of politics, with the exception of discussions involving politics that very directly relate to the subject at hand.

  11. The CDC is really the gestapo in disguise. We are cursed by one person or agency controlling our lives and most don’t have a clue about reality.

  12. I went to Mexico in February to finish up some family business in city about an hour south of Mexico City. Finding someplace to get the covid test was a nightmare. We ended up having it done prior to departure at the airport and it went super smoothly. My friend had everything uploaded and the green check in the VeriFly app in under 30 minutes. For whatever reason the app never confirmed my results so I just filled out a paper and showed my email at the ticket counter. It took maybe an extra two minutes. We filled out the other form on our phones in the security line after bringing it up with the QR code. We were familiar with it having flown a number of times in Mexico last fall. I’d go back to Mexico in heartbeat. Sounds like you were unlucky.

  13. Hey, went to CUN last week and hotel covered the cost, and then we just had to upload the doc through the UA app. Heading back in August, hope it stays a smooth process.

    That’s what you get for going with AA.

    Hope all is well. Go Hoops in 2021-22!

  14. I’m yet another in the thread who came back through CUN last week and my experience was also not really this bad at all. I did Delta, and thought they did a pretty good job listing all the things required.

    Tests were included with our stay and were done onsite. Getting the appointment and test done was 15 minutes total, and got results via email. I chose to print them myself rather than rely on someone else to do it. I guess that would be my recommendation.

    My only surprise was the Mexico electronic health screening at the airport. No notice of this until we went upstairs right before security, so it created a glut of people waiting around there to get it filled out. This was in addition to the paper screening we were asked to fill out at bag drop(that no one looked at). But this was no big deal.
    Overall there was noticeably more paperwork in the whole ordeal, but it wouldn’t stop me from doing it again, particularly as a vax’ed flyer.

  15. I’ve travelled throughout the USA during the pandemic (which, other than constant schedule changes, has been easy and generally unremarkable), but I have not left the country. I don’t plan to unless I can simply present my vaccination card and be done with the nonsense. I’m not really willing to do more than this. And I suspect the majority of American travellers feel that same.

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