Current Pandemic-Related Regulations for Business Travel to the United States, Germany, and the EU
Recently, due to the availability of COVID-19 vaccines, many countries decided to lift their entry restrictions or change them in such a way that travelers who had recovered from COVID-19 infections or been vaccinated were allowed entry. Here is an overview of some of the current entry requirements for international travel.
Entry Into the United States
Since November 8, 2021, individuals have been allowed to enter the United States again from Europe. For 20 months, an entry ban had been in place in the United States for travelers from Brazil, China, India, Iran, Ireland, the Schengen Area (26 countries), South Africa, and the United Kingdom. A proclamation issued by President Joe Biden on October 25, 2021—“A Proclamation on Advancing the Safe Resumption of Global Travel During the COVID-19 Pandemic”—ended these entry restrictions and the need for national interest exceptions (NIE) to the restrictions. Travelers from most countries (a recent U.S. ban on travel from eight African countries took effect on November 29, 2021) may enter the United States if they are fully vaccinated and present negative coronavirus test results (via RT-PCR tests or antigen tests) that are no more than three days old at the time of departure.
Travelers must prove to their airlines that they have been fully vaccinated with internationally recognized vaccines prior to their departures. Currently, the United States recognizes vaccines the Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca, Oxford-AstraZeneca/Covishield, Covaxin, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson/Janssen, BIBP/Sinopharm, and Sinovacvaccines. A traveler’s last vaccination must have taken place at least 14 days before the planned date of travel. The United States accepts the EU Digital COVID Certificate as proof of vaccination.
Exempt groups include persons on diplomatic or governmental foreign travel, children under 18 years of age, and persons who cannot be vaccinated with a COVID-19 vaccine for documented medical reasons. Persons exempt from the October 25, 2021, proclamation’s requirements may enter the United States without being fully vaccinated, but they must quarantine for seven days upon arrival and test for COVID-19 infection three to five days after entry.
Regardless of the COVID-19–related entry requirements, all travelers still need an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) entry permit issued by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). CBP advises travelers to apply online for ESTA authorization at least 72 hours in advance of departure.
Requirements for Entry Into the European Union
The European Union (EU) has a common approach to travel from third countries to EU member states. Entry requirements are constantly being adapted to the pandemic situation as international travel gradually opens up. Currently, in principle, any person from a third country who has been fully vaccinated with a vaccine approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) (BioNTech-Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Janssen-Cilag) may enter the European Union. The last vaccination must have taken place at least 14 days before the planned entry.
EU citizens and residents as well as their family members are allowed to enter EU member states without being fully vaccinated. Further exceptions apply to persons for whom absolutely necessary reasons for entry exist. “Absolutely necessary reasons” may exist, among other things, for highly qualified employees from third countries if their labor is necessary from an economic point of view and their work cannot be postponed or carried out abroad.
The EU also maintains a list of countries where the epidemiological situation has improved sufficiently (the so-called “EU White List”), so that entry from these countries is possible regardless of an individual’s vaccination status. This list is constantly updated according to the epidemiological situation. The United States is not currently on the EU White List, so entry from the United States is only possible for fully vaccinated persons.
Each EU member state may set its own additional entry requirements. The EU’s “Re-open EU,” a clearinghouse of information regarding EU member states’ pandemic-related measures, offers an overview of the quarantine and testing requirements of the individual countries.
Requirements for Entry Into Germany
All travelers to Germany from third countries that are not on the EU White List and are not EU citizens or residents must be fully vaccinated. In exceptional cases, entry is possible if it is absolutely necessary.
In addition, all travelers aged 12 or older must provide proof of vaccination. Before crossing the border, proof of vaccination or convalescence, or a test result showing negative for infection (e.g., an antigen test that is no more than 48 hours old or an RT-PCR test that is no more than 72 hours old), must be presented for inspection by the carrier or at the request of the Federal Police.
For previous stays in high-risk or virus-variant areas, digital travel registration is also mandatory. The Robert Koch Institute provides a current list of all high-risk and virus-variant areas.
Nonvaccinated or recovered travelers entering from high-risk areas must also present a negative test upon entry and enter domestic quarantine for 10 days. The domestic quarantine can be ended prematurely if another negative test result is presented five days after entry.
At present, travel from a virus-variant area is not possible, as a travel ban is in force for countries where virus mutations are widespread. Entry is possible only in a few exceptional cases (for example, for German nationals and persons with residence and an existing right of abode in Germany, as well as their immediate family members). Irrespective of vaccination or convalescent status, these travelers are obliged to register their entries digitally, present negative test results upon entry, and go into quarantine for 14 days. Only vaccinated and recovered persons may shorten their quarantine periods by presenting further negative test results five days after entry.
Employer Inquiries Into Employees’ Vaccination and Recovery Status
These extensive regulations raise a question as to whether an employer may inquire into an employee’s vaccination status, or whether the employee has recovered from a COVID-19 infection in connection with an upcoming business trip.
The vaccination and/or convalescence status of an employee, under 9 (1) of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), is considered health data and thus protected personal information according to Art. An employer may request and process this information only if there is a legal basis for doing so. If a business trip requires proof of an employee’s vaccination against COVID-19 (e.g., due to entry restrictions), an employer may request and process this information from the employee in individual cases. However, employers may only request the information in the context of specific business trips and are prohibited from retaining the information for any other purposes.”
The COVID-19–related entry regulations of many countries may largely determine the feasibility of a contemplated business trip, as the prospect for international business travel will likely depend on the vaccination status of the employees involved. This situation may result in a legitimate interest on the part of the employer to inquire into employee vaccination status because the employer would otherwise be unable to find out whether a particular employee met the entry requirements of the destination country. Only by inquiring into vaccination status can the employer ensure that the employee is not turned away at the border—i.e., that the employee can fulfill the duty to provide the contractually agreed upon work within the scope of the business trip.
Whether an employer’s query regarding an employee’s vaccination status is legitimate is therefore a case- and fact-specific inquiry, which depends above all on the entry regulations of the destination country. If the destination country requires complete vaccination for entry, it may be permissible from a data protection perspective to ask about an employee’s vaccination status.