Should You Pack Your COVID-19 Vaccine Card for Your Next Trip?

Not all trips will require you to flash your COVID-19 vaccine card, but you should probably pack it anyway.
Sally French
By Sally French 
Edited by Kevin Berry

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If you haven’t traveled in a while, then your packing skills may have gotten rusty. There are plenty of new items to add to your packing list — like a smartphone power bank since more restaurants mandate mobile ordering.

But there’s one more thing that you might bring on your next trip: your COVID-19 vaccination card.

Below, we'll answer the following questions:

For international travel

You’ll almost certainly need it. Most countries need proof of vaccination or a negative test result if you want to avoid a quarantine. Some countries, regardless of your vaccine status, require proof of a negative COVID-19 test.

Many countries will require you to upload a copy of your vaccination card to a vaccine passport system of some kind before your departure. Be sure to check the rules for the specific country you're traveling to.

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For domestic travel

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 forces U.S. citizens to receive 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.

Where proof of vaccination might come in handy

To that end, packing your COVID-19 vaccination card could make sense, especially since these destinations or travel experiences will require it:

If going to sports events and concerts

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 must prove they've been vaccinated or have a negative COVID-19 status.

Other venues offer unvaccinated and vaccinated sections. While vaccinated guests are allowed to sit in unvaccinated sections, it doesn’t work in reverse. Proof of vaccination not only unlocks more seat choices, but may allow you to avoid wearing a mask inside.

Unvaccinated sections also typically come with mask rules that vaccinated sections don’t.

If boarding certain cruise lines

You’ll definitely need your COVID-19 vaccine card for certain types of travel, including cruises, though you’ll likely be aware of the rules 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, want vaccination proof for some or all voyages. Some even ask for 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.

If heading to cities like San Francisco and New York

It’s almost impossible to get around a city if local laws require proof of full vaccination. As of mid-August 2021, 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 have followed, and many more could join in.

If you’re going on an extended trip

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 gave 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.

Alternatives to packing your vaccination record card

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.

  • State-specific passes. Some states have rolled out technology that shows digital proof of vaccination or negative test results, like New York’s Excelsior Pass and California’s Digital COVID-19 Vaccine Record. While those passes won’t substitute for situations requiring hard copies, downloading them to your device can be a happy medium in showing proof without risking losing your original.

  • Privately run apps. Some companies have created digital vaccine cards, which may prove useful if your state of residency doesn’t offer digital versions (or you don’t want to share that information with your state). Many, though not all, places that require proof of vaccination accept these apps. For example, Clear, which is primarily used for security in airports, rolled out a program called Health Pass.

  • A photo. In some situations, a simple photo might be proof enough. Both the cities of New York and San Francisco have stated that a photo of your CDC vaccination record card is enough (though private businesses might have stricter rules). It’s not a bad idea to have a photo of your vaccination card saved to your phone, just in case. You won’t have to download any apps, and you won’t have to worry about another company potentially storing your data.

With these choices, you will have peace of mind knowing that you have some sort of vaccination proof should you need it.

If you're considering packing your COVID-19 vaccination card

If you’re planning an international trip, you will almost certainly need to give 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.

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