U.S. borders reopen to many vaccinated international travelers

LONDON — Travelers excited at the prospect of seeing family and friends in the United States for the first time since the pandemic began took off early on Monday from London and other cities following the lifting of U.S. travel restrictions.

The extraordinary U.S. restrictions, first imposed in early 2020, had barred access to air travelers from 33 countries — including China, India and much of Europe — and had also restricted overland entry from Mexico and Canada.

The unprecedented ban has dealt a huge blow to tourism but also kept loved ones from attending weddings, funerals, or meeting new babies.

Gail and Paul Chamberlain looked forward to meeting their daughter’s fiancé in person as they prepared to catch a flight to Los Angeles from London’s Heathrow Airport.

“I’m so joyful I could cry,” Gail Chamberlain, 67, told NBC News. “I’m [going] wedding dress shopping. That I never thought I would be able to do with her.”

Performers entertain travelers at London’s Heathrow Airport as the U.S. reopens its borders to U.K. visitors. Steve Parsons – PA Images / PA Images via Getty Images

From Monday, travelers who can show official proof of vaccination against Covid-19 and have had a recent, negative viral test can fly to the United States.

“We went from zero activity to one that is similar to October 2019 levels, so before Covid,” said Jerome Thomann, of Paris-based Jetset Voyages travel agency, which specializes in trips to North America.

There are expected to be few if any empty seats on many of the international flights from London, Paris and elsewhere on Monday, and passenger volume is expected to remain high in the coming weeks.

To mark the occasion British Airways and Virgin Atlantic had two flights take off together for the first time from London’s Heathrow to New York’s JFK. There was a festive atmosphere at the airport with performers in red, white and blue costumes entertaining travelers.

The two airlines marked the reopening on their social media accounts too, with Virgin posting a photo of a new “U.S. themed cocktail.”

Cars line up to cross the border at San Ysidro crossing on the Mexico-U.S. border in Tijuana state, Mexico, on November 7, 2021. Guillermo Arias / AFP – Getty Images

Airlines, which have warned there will likely be long queues at first, will check vaccination documentation for international travelers as they currently do for Covid-19 test results.

The reopening of the United States to British travelers will help all airlines operating between the two countries, but for U.K.-based trans-Atlantic-focused Virgin Atlantic, it means “the world,” its chief executive said.

“Today is a day of celebration,” CEO Shai Weiss told NBC News.

British Airways chief Sean Doyle agreed, and said the airline has seen enthusiasm by business travelers to get back on the road again.

“Apart from the human aspect, it’s very important for business and trade that we get this corridor up and running again,” he told NBC News. “The links are very strong and travel is a key part of enabling that economic activity.”

Delta said that in the six weeks since the U.S reopening was announced it had seen a 450 percent increase in international point-of-sale bookings versus the six weeks prior to the announcement, though most experts believe that corporate travel will lag the recovery in leisure travel.

Starting on Monday, the nearly 2,000-mile border between Mexico and the United States will also be open again.

Hundreds of migrants have arrived at Mexican border cities such as Tijuana, hoping the reset will make it easier to cross and seek U.S. asylum.

At land border crossings, U.S. Customs and Border Protection will ask if travelers have been vaccinated and spot check some documentation.

Children under 18 are exempt from the new vaccine requirements. Non-tourist travelers from nearly 50 countries with nationwide vaccination rates of less than 10 percent will also be eligible for exemption.

Rachel Elbaum contributed.

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