What Travelers Need to Know About Digital Health Passports

By Amanda Wowk

January 11, 2021

If you’ve flown during the pandemic, you’re likely already familiar with the requirements many destinations have put in place based on your health status. In the U.S., many states require visitors to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test upon arrival, or a period of quarantine in its stead. 

Now that vaccines are being administered, the conversation around travel requirements is slowly starting to move from testing and/or quarantining to the future need for proof of vaccination. And while requiring proof of vaccination for travel isn’t a new concept (more on that below), routinely sharing health-related documentation will be a change for many travelers. Plus, how travelers share this information—likely in a digital format—will, for the most part, be new to everyone.  

Here’s what travelers need to know about digital health passports. 

What is a health passport? 

A health passport, also called a vaccine passport, is an immunization record proving that a person has been inoculated against a certain virus or disease. Some travelers already have a health passport; a paper-based one issued as proof of yellow fever vaccination and required when traveling to some countries in South America or Africa. In the mid-1900s, the World Health Organization (WHO) created the International Certificate of Inoculation and Vaccination or Prophylaxis (ICVP)—often referred to as carte jaune, or yellow card—and has been paper-based since it was introduced.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are issuing similar paper cards for COVID-19 vaccinations. When you receive your vaccine, you’re handed a white slip of paper called a COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card. It contains your name, date of birth, and medical record number, followed by a line to manually write in when the first dose was administered, the manufacturer of the dose, and the healthcare professional or clinic that administered it. A second line is available for recording the details of the second dose, as well, also serving as a good reminder that two doses are currently necessary.  

In the U.K., the National Health Service (NHS) is also issuing a credit card-sized vaccination card to all inoculated citizens. In Canada, the healthcare system is decentralized, meaning provinces and territories will decide how to administer the vaccine to citizens. Ontario has announced it will issue vaccine cards to recipients; other provinces have remained mum (to date). 

What is a digital health passport?

“Digital health passports displaying a traveler’s vaccine or negative test status will emerge as we transition to a new normal in global travel.”- Fiona Ashley, VP Global Product & Solution Marketing, SAP Concur

While the paper-based health passport has worked for decades, technology provides travelers with a better method. 

Enter: the digital health passport. 

The digital health passport provides a means to conveniently store your vaccination information online—and share it electronically with necessary parties, such as when you travel. Similar to other third party applications, a digital health passport stores your data only once within that application, and then verification is provided to the outside parties (such as airlines, border patrols, and so on) so they don't also have to receive and store your health data, which could make it even more vulnerable.

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How does it work? 

Your physical passport provides standardized proof of identification; specifically, your country of origin. A digital health passport would act similarly, providing standardized information about your health, including your vaccination certificates and COVID-19 test results. 

But who sets the standard for sharing this type of information? The WHO told The Points Guy that any standardized proof of vaccination, like a vaccine card, “would have to be as per the International Health Regulations and would happen with debate and engagement with our member states.” The organization added that it is “currently exploring how the common vaccination record could be done electronically.” 

Why is this necessary? In early November 2020, The Washington Post reported that travelers were purchasing fake COVID-19 results in order to travel. The current paper certification format for COVID-19 vaccinations also poses the potential for fraud (at worst) or loss of the vaccination card (at best). A standardized digital health passport would help ensure validity and verifiability, as well as safeguard against theft or loss. 

A digital health passport would also support travelers’ expectations of a paperless travel experience. For example, if you want to check into a flight online and need to submit your vaccination status in order to do so, a digital health passport will allow you to quickly and seamlessly share the necessary information. 

How will I use a digital health passport?

While future requirements might vary by location, airport, and airline, proof of a COVID-19 vaccine will likely become a requirement for international travel. What exactly that will look like is not yet clear. Some developing technologies are working to integrate the requirement into a typical travel process, such as while checking into a flight or as part of hotel check-in procedures. This approach will simply add another step within the existing process—one that confirms your vaccination status without adding a separate activity.

Others are exploring having travelers download an app and upload their health information to it (or have a medical provider do so) and provide that information upon boarding or at border entry. 

When will one be ready?

In short, it’s still too soon to tell when a standardized digital health passport will be available to travelers and/or required. However, strides are being made to streamline the traveler experience in a post-COVID world. Just this past November, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced it was developing the IATA Travel Pass, a digital health pass that will include a traveler’s test and vaccination certificates. Likewise, airlines are exploring the use of health apps like CommonPass, ICC AOKpass and VeriFLY to ensure passengers can present their digital health passport in a secure and standardized way. However, one single method for sharing COVID vaccination and/or negative tests results has yet to be agreed upon.