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Vaccine passports: What they are and how they could help you travel

Vaccine passports
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Vaccine passports aren't the traditional booklets you've used for international travel in the past. Instead, they're proposed health certificates that would prove your coronavirus vaccination status, which could grant easier entry to foreign countries post-pandemic. 

Travel trade groups and tech companies are developing a new system of credentials for those who are vaccinated. Certain airlines and other travel industry players have already voiced support for such a system, hoping for improved business during the upcoming summer season.

There are several initiatives in the works for these so-called vaccine passports. International Air Transport Association's program is called Travel Pass and IBM's is called Digital Health Pass. 

American Airlines and British Airways have also introduced VeriFLY, a free program that's already being tested on their flights. At this time, no airlines are requiring vaccine passports, but in the trial stages, proof of vaccination could mean more lax quarantine and testing protocols when traveling across international borders.

Wondering whether your vaccination status will impact your next trip? Here's what you need to know about vaccine passports, and how they will (or won't) matter for international travel.

How does a vaccine passport work?

While there are several different vaccine passports being developed, all will more or less play the same role. Those who have proof of vaccination could be subject to different customs protocols, whether it's bypassing coronavirus tests, a shorter quarantine period or not quarantine period at all. 

The goal of vaccine passports is to streamline the international travel process as trips pick up in the summertime, when vaccines should be available to all American adults. 

Vaccine passports may be encouraged in non-travel situations, too. For example, Israel created a “green passport” that clears those who are vaccinated for large public gatherings like concerts or sporting events.

What does a vaccine passport look like?

Vaccine passports could take a few different forms. The VeriFLY passport currently being tested is a smartphone app for iOS and Android. In select destinations, you can use the VeriFLY app to report negative COVID-19 test results and complete travel forms for a faster airport check-in.

The IATA's Travel Pass is also an app. According to the proposal, Travel Pass would allow passengers to set up a digital passport that verifies their test/vaccination meets a given country or area's regulations. 

IBM's Digital Health Passport is a bit more ambitious. Designed for travel, as well as large events and professional environments, Digital Health Passport will require you to upload your certificates on your phone. Those certificates will be reviewed by a verifying organization. If approved, your Digital Health Passport can be added to your smartphone's wallet.

All vaccine passports might not be digital — paper passports are an option, too. They could make it easier for those who aren't smartphone savvy to travel. They're also less susceptible to health information getting exposed in a data breach. However, paper passports would be more subject to getting lost or being forged. 

Will vaccine passports be required?

On a cross-border basis, vaccine passports are not currently required. There are other travel restrictions in place due to the ongoing nature of the pandemic. 

Plans for vaccine passports are intended to support the expected travel surge once more people around the world are vaccinated and travel restrictions are lessened. When that happens, it will be difficult to require proof of vaccination on a global scale. Between multiple kinds of passports and varying travel rules, there are already concerns about vaccine passport confusion.

And that's before considering the complications of vaccination distribution. In the U.S., people cannot be forced to get vaccinated, and many may reject the vaccine due to personal or religious beliefs. In some countries, it will be a while before vaccines are readily available those who want or need it.

So it's difficult to imagine vaccine passports will be required on a global scale any time soon. Vaccine passports will most likely be optional additions to your travel paperwork that makes arriving to a different country easier, similar to the U.S.'s global entry program.

Vaccine passports outlook

Vaccine passports won't be standardized for some time, if ever. While the idea of an international health certificate might be appealing to those hoping to put the pandemic in the past, it won't be easy to implement the tools and regulations for a vaccine passport system.

Currently, there are apps and forms that help travelers verify negative coronavirus test results, which are still required to enter certain places. It's possible, we'll see similar programs for vaccination status offered among airlines or event arenas soon, even if they're not mandatory.

Kate Kozuch

Kate Kozuch is a senior writer at Tom’s Guide covering wearables, TVs and everything smart-home related. When she’s not in cyborg mode, you can find her on an exercise bike or channeling her inner celebrity chef. She and her robot army will rule the world one day, but until then, reach her at kate.kozuch@futurenet.com.