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It’s impossible to say for sure whether you'll need proof of vaccination while traveling domestically within the U.S., as rules vary by state, county, city and individual business.
If you don’t need proof, then you might not want to bring it, as it’s just one more thing that could get lost or damaged. Sure, in some circumstances, you won’t need it, but increasingly more individual businesses (and sometimes entire cities) are requiring it, and often the rules change with little notice.
The Biden administration has said that there will be no federal vaccination database or mandate that requires U.S. citizens to obtain a vaccination credential — and most Americans don’t want that, either. Only 33% of Americans think digital vaccine passports should be required, according to a February 2021 J.D. Power survey of 1,500 air passengers. Meanwhile, 35% of Americans in the same survey said vaccine passports are a bad idea.
But most experts agree that federal laws don’t block individual businesses from asking about, or requiring, vaccination status. Plus, proof is sometimes required at state and local levels.
"As a matter of federal law, it is not prohibited," says Glenn Cohen, a law professor and bioethics expert at Harvard University. When people say HIPAA, the federal medical information privacy law, forbids it, they are mistaken, he notes.
To that end, packing your COVID-19 vaccination card could make sense, especially given that the following destinations or travel experiences will require it:
A few small, private venues ask for vaccination proof, but it’s more likely to be required at larger venues. In California, attendees of indoor events with 5,000 or more people are required to prove they've been vaccinated or have a negative COVID-19 status.
Other venues offer unvaccinated and vaccinated sections. While vaccinated guests are permitted to sit in unvaccinated sections, it doesn’t work in reverse. Proof of vaccination not only unlocks more seat options, but may allow you to avoid wearing a mask inside. Unvaccinated sections also typically come with mask requirements that vaccinated sections don’t.
You’ll definitely need your COVID-19 vaccine card for certain types of travel, including cruises, though you’ll likely be aware of the requirements well before booking. Without proof of vaccination, you’ll likely experience limitations or be prevented from that type of travel entirely.
Most major cruise lines, including Disney Cruise Line, Holland America and Norwegian Cruise Line, require vaccination proof for some or all voyages. Some even require both proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test. While some cruise lines accept digital proof, others require the original physical copy. Check with your cruise provider before departure day.
Heading to the Aloha State? has had some of the strictest restrictions since the onset of the pandemic, requiring a 10-day quarantine unless you show proof of a negative test taken from an approved test provider. But as of July 2021, Hawaii allows travelers entering from (and who were fully vaccinated in) the U.S. to bypass those requirements by uploading documentation online.
You must present either your printed-out vaccination record document or a hard copy of your vaccine card upon arrival.
It’s almost impossible to get around a city if local laws require proof of full vaccination. As of mid-August, San Francisco requires that restaurants, bars, clubs, gyms and large indoor events must obtain proof of vaccination from patrons ages 12 and older.
Also as of mid-August, people 12 and older in New York City are required to show proof they have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine for indoor dining, indoor gyms and pools, and indoor entertainment, such as theaters, museums, and convention centers.
Other cities could follow.
And if other cities follow, there’s a chance you could already be en route to your vacation destination only to find yourself in a place with a newfound vaccine requirement but no proof. San Francisco provided only about a week's notice of the new rules.
For someone starting in Southern California and driving up the coast for a California road trip, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to have already started your vacation, only to find yourself arriving in San Francisco with nowhere to eat indoors because your only proof of vaccination is in the sock drawer back home. Avoid that predicament by packing proof anyway.
Depending on the nature of your trip, you might be required to flash your physical, original vaccination record. But other vaccine passport initiatives are underway, meaning you might be able to prove your status digitally rather than by carrying your physical card.
With these alternatives, you will have peace of mind knowing that you have some sort of vaccination proof should you need it.
If you’re planning an international trip, you will almost certainly need to provide proof of vaccination in whatever form your destination requires. And increasingly more domestic travel spots are also requiring vaccine proof, so you might want to be prepared with it on your packing list.
Just in case, at least save a photo to your camera roll — it could come in handy in a pinch.