Getting from France to the US in December 2021 Covid Times

I knew, from the time I planned this trip, that I was making a Choice. I hadn’t done a good and proper trip since February 2019, when I went to Amsterdam and a terrible cold fucked up my back. In the way of our species’ collective fantasizing from March 2020 on, I’d longed to have a do-over across lockdown. Fall didn’t offer a window amidst the walls of horribleness in the way we had in the early summer, when vaccines were offering such hope and the shitty roar of antivax horseshit had yet to really arise. But it felt safe enough for my own threat model and fears, so we moved ahead: to France and Spain we would go. (To Berlin we would not because of the rough covid rates and impending threat of lockdown.)

I researched and acknowledged the hurdles: I would have to get a French pass sanitaire by paying a pharmacy 36 euros to convert my paper CDC vaccination record – sure, that sounds great. I didn’t really want to go anywhere that wasn’t checking vaccinations at the door anyway, and I didn’t care to go anywhere that wasn’t at least as careful as the Bay Area. I would also have to get a covid test 72 hours before flying back and have an electronic or paper copy of the test to provide to the airline and, presumably, US border control or a similar entity. Very well! I researched testing options in Paris, sketched out a rough schedule in my head, and felt pretty ok about what was to come.

Then, on the Tuesday morning before a Friday morning flight, I got an email from Air France: the covid test now had to be done within 24 hours of departure, which meant late morning the day before. To be clear: this was an initial misinterpretation of the requirement, which actually states, as of this week, that the test has to be done on the calendar day before you leave. But that wasn’t Air France’s initial interpretation, so I got a little bonus freaking out due to that.

I’ve had to get covid tests twice during the pandemic, once after working at an election site and once after my trip to New York this summer. Both times, I had results within 24 hours, but that felt like a fluke: never promised, always incidental.

This new requirement, of course, changed things. Here’s how I got home.

Covid testing in Paris

Before the testing window shortened, I asked my host for the last leg of my trip what she knew about covid testing and timing in Paris. She told me that most pharmacies test (something that seemed very true; most of them had little tents by their front doors on the sidewalk just for that). With the 72-hour window, that would’ve been great; we were within a ten-minute walk of at least three pharmacies. Easy! What I couldn’t find was a solid, specific statement saying that those test results would be ready in 24 hours – or, ideally, in less than twelve. This led me to Biogroup, which I found through the official French site that directs people to covid testing sites. There are a lot; it seems like a ton of dentists have gotten in on this, which is pretty great.

Biogroup was the only one I found that offered:

  • Lots of locations
  • A promise of results in 12 hours
  • A clear description of how results would be provided via PDF, securely downloaded
  • The promise that walk-ins were available
  • A list of which services provided by each clinic
  • Promises of English speakers. I can speak good-enough terrible French for things like getting tickets or food. For navigating something that straddled medical and international travel spheres, I wanted someone who could talk to me in my own language.

This is how I ended up walking to 20 rue de Pont Neuf just before the 8:15 am sunrise the day before I was due to fly home. I ended up in a line of maybe 20 people, primarily English speakers, working with Google Translate to figure out the best way to say I needed a pre-travel covid test please. We were finished by 9:30 am. Was it extremely well organized? Not quite, which is fine – I have a sense of how French bureaucracy seems to work, and I knew they were trying pretty hard to make this weird thing work. They were kind to confused people and got me what I needed, and sometimes that’s all I can ask from a situation.

Here’s how it went:

  • They let us in one or two people at a time; usually couples were allowed in together. Other people showed up for appointments during all this, standing in a separate, shorter line. Good for them. I wished I’d worn another layer but generally do ok in the cold, so I wasn’t desperately unhappy.
  • Once we got in the door, they took our passports and had us complete a form to consent to the test and get our results. It looked like it was about eight generations off of the original copy. We just had to confirm the test we wanted, write and sign our names, and provide our email addresses.
  • We paid 44 euros each for the pleasure. Card was fine.
  • We were each taken into a private room and got the brain swab. Remember the big-ass q-tip people talked about nervously in the beginning of the pandemic? The one they pushed in so far that you figured they had to be brushing your brain stem? That’s what was still going on there. The site also offered saliva and blood tests at certain labs, but my French and anxiety were bad enough that I just went with the version of things I knew would work in the tight timeline and requirements I had.
  • Everyone who dealt with the confused tourist line spoke enough English that things worked pretty smoothly.
  • They confirmed they’d transcribed the email addresses correctly from the handwritten version on the form. Bless.
  • They gave us a slip of paper with a pre-generated password to retrieve the results later. This wasn’t necessary but was a great touch.

That was it. It sucked, but the people were kind. We had our results emails by 4 pm: blessedly négatif.

They sent two emails. One takes you to a portal where you enter some PII to generate an email containing a temporary password for said portal, where you can download the PDF you need. The other had a password-protected PDF attachment that could be opened with the password they provided. You’ll want the one from the portal because things like the Air France document void and the ToutAntiCovid mobile app will not have any idea of how to handle a password-protected PDF. (Still, cheers to Biogroup for trying.)

Uploading everything everywhere

I uploaded the PDF to the ToutAntiCovid app, which created a new record that contained its own QR code, the negative result, and a dynamic field that showed how old the test was. This was enough proof for everyone who asked for it at Charles de Gaulle – much easier than asking people to squint at the tiny version of an 8.5×11-inch test result file on my phone. I uploaded the PDF plus some other paperwork (vax records for both countries) to Air France, which promised that doing so would avoid hassle at the airport.

A couple things exacerbated all this: the first was the CDC reclassifying France’s covid risk, and the other was a general sense of elevated risk within Paris or possibly all of France. Those last few days, I saw military types with automatic weapons in a lot of different places, including the airport, La Defense, and by the Palace of Justice. That general !!! sense probably did not help with things like allowing airlines to accurately interpret extremely fresh, imperfectly worded international health directives. I would assume this was the case with all airlines flying from the US from other countries right now, particularly ones like France that were recently put on double secret probation by the CDC.

The night before we left, I received an email saying all those uploaded documents were approved… and then they were reviewed again in total before we were allowed to check bags. For this, we were rewarded with a sticker on the backs of our passports, a label with a handwritten set of initials on it, indicating we were ready to go. My boarding pass already had a READY TO FLY designation on it from the document upload approval, but I saw no indication that any of this actually expedited anything for us on the day of.


And other administrivia

I also received multiple Air France emails about A FORM that we had to print, fill out, and bring to the airport. I regret to inform you that it’s a stupid and duplicative form that my government clearly foisted on other international agencies without a lot of explanation. (Kind of like the change in the acceptable window for covid tests; the first Air France email said “within 24 hours of departure” and the other stated correctly that it needed to be done in the calendar day before your departure, so a 12:30 am test on Thursday would be valid for a flight at 11:30 pm Friday night. The CDC says that this is to try to give flexibility to travelers, but as an anxious person crossing time zones, I gently suggest to them that they are not helping in the way they claim to be.) The first version was a docx file; the replacement form was a swanky PDF. I got to go to a copy place in the Marais the night before we left to get this shit printed only to find that the airline had a giant stack of them available at the check-in desk at CDG. COOL.

It just says that you either have submitted a covid test or have a damned good reason not to have done so, plus a signature. It isn’t tied to a passport or booking number or anything else solid and traceable, and it did not appear to be recorded electronically in any way, judging by the messy pile of them being collected at the gate. COOL.

We were asked about it more than once at bag drop, and then a third-party security guard type came around the gate area, checked passports, and collected them from people who happened to be sitting around the gate 45 minutes before boarding, including me. He pointed at the sticker put on the back of my passport earlier and said, “If you talk to another one of my coworkers, they will see this and know you’re good to go.” “Cool,” I said.

I will note here that I have seldom encountered a situation where the addition of third-party security guard types makes the situation better.

My partner came back from getting food, and I said, “You should probably give your form to that guy. They seem to be trying to get this done.” This was a mistake. He did as I suggested and was told to stand somewhere else for boarding (we were not boarding), handed the form over anyway, and came back, figuring he’d done what he could.

Cut to 45 minutes later when we actually were boarding, and he was accused of not having a form. “I gave it to you earlier,” he said. The security guard said he did not. “He did,” I said. Finally, it became clear that filling out an additional copy of the brief and pointless form was the path of least resistance. He did so while I started my own battle. “You didn’t fill out the form,” the guy told me. “I did,” I said, and recited our entire conversation, finishing by pointing at the sticker. Apparently my performance was more convincing. We were finally allowed to board the plane.

And, finally, home

That was the last of the covid test result presentation dance. We have Global Entry, so our return interview consisted of getting little print-outs with grainy pictures of our tired selves, a recitation of things we bought and brought home (“a couple of bottles of champagne, a lot of gummy candy, and some inexpensive earrings”), and then walking out into SFO, back to being ordinary people. We plan to test ourselves again early next week just to be very sure we made it through this ok, but I’m not worried.

It’s nice to stop being worried. I haven’t really had that for the last five-odd days.

My suggestions for you

If I’d known this shit was going to go into such upheaval so soon before we left, we would have brought a couple of those proctored self-tests. Prior to this week, I didn’t know those existed and resulted in a legally helpful test result; it would have made a lot of things much easier, both generally and because I do not do well with vague directives for things as specific as paperwork for international travel. So if you’re going abroad in this era, I strongly suggest doing that.

I would also suggest not flying to the US from France or other level-four-omg countries right now. I didn’t really have the opportunity to consider this, as the levels didn’t change until the trip was well underway. If you have the choice, though, depart from an easier country. If we’d flown out of Spain, a lot of things would have been simpler.

However, I’m pretty grateful we flew into France. I haven’t seen a CDC card conversion scheme for other countries as of this writing (and preliminarily googling it again so soon after all my pre-trip research frankly makes my head hurt right now; there are countries that work easily with it, but the US is not among them). Starting our trip in France meant getting an EU covid vax certification QR code shortly after arriving from the airport using a fairly straightforward process that costs 36 euros. There, it’s generally referred to as the pass sanitaire, a phrase which I can blissfully usually pick out of rapidfire French directives. (Getting the pass sanitaire was step one; buying cheese was step two. Falling asleep for five hours followed shortly after.) This pass, which initially seemed France specific when I was first researching it, is what allowed us to fly into Spain, to go to certain events there, and to just generally have a proper vacation. I feel like there have to be ways around this in other countries, but I don’t know what they are. I have it on good authority, though, that most people at the door in Europe are not going to be interested in deciphering your weird paper CDC card.

The pass checking wasn’t always consistent but happened often enough that I felt more comfortable with moving around in the world. France: thanks for checking the pass even for patio dining. Spain: your whole QR code locator form process for new arrivals was a bit of a pain in the ass, but the efforts are clearly working, so thank you. We were rarely asked for an ID to compare to the name on the pass, but best to keep one on hand anyway, in the way of these things.

I hope you like forms, because this requires a lot of them.

At the moment, certain kinds of travel mean taking up government documentation and admin interpretation as a new and time-consuming hobby. I’m a process dork by nature so take to this stuff pretty well, and I still had several not-ok moments during all this.

I had a small panic event the night before we left because I found a now-inaccurate Air France page from a month or two prior that still stated that visitors to France needed a compelling reason and a covid test for entry. I called my partner into my kitchen and said, “I think I ruined our trip and I’m sorry.” I had not ruined the trip, as it turned out. But this is what lackadaisical documentation governance in a complicated time can do to a person!

I even had a dress rehearsal of sorts when I helped a friend with the lighter version of this stuff required for going to Hawaii from the continental US, and I still felt overwhelmed more than once in this heavier international version. I say again: I like figuring out difficult bureaucratic stuff, and this shit almost broke me a couple of times.

The regulations and requirements change often enough right now that there’s a lot of outdated stuff out there. Right now, if you read guidance that isn’t dated within the last week, question whether it still applies.

It’s a good idea to think very carefully about traveling internationally right now at all, of course. I only wanted to go to places that had a similar model of safety to the Bay Area; a lot of places remain fundamentally off limits to me, including large parts of my own country. I urge you to be very careful and weigh things similarly. And once you’ve figured out that perhaps there’s a place in the world you feel ethically ok with visiting, really consider what your trip might look like if you have to spend parts of two or more days being stressed about meeting requirements to get on your plane home. If this had been a week-long trip, I think I would’ve been pretty upset to have spent so much time on this stuff. Instead, it was a two-week trip, and the hard parts got diluted – but it still had an effect. I also brought a laptop; navigating this stuff without one would’ve been really, really hard. We didn’t stay at hotels, so business centers were not an option. Copy shops would have been possible, but pretty inconvenient.

In addition to taking a frankly perverse joy in unpicking complicated systems, I also have enough money to deal with large, expensive changes of plan and reason to believe I wouldn’t lose my job if I suddenly had to be away for an extra two weeks. It’s a bet I can afford to make. Be sure you can too before doing something like this in this era. For instance, this was the plan B I formulated in case our tests came back positive: I was going to quarantine somewhere less expensive in the Paris suburbs and enjoy what I had named the Plague Ship Writing Residency. This plan fell apart somewhere around “but French takeout delivery apps don’t seem to accept American credit cards,” but that was future plague rat me’s problem to figure out.

I’ll write soon about the fun parts of all of this, and I promise you there were many. But everything I just wrote was part of the cost of every excellent meal, every minute spent gawping at centuries-old stained glass, every ramble through the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. In the meantime, while it’s still fresh and technically accurate, here’s the harder part. I hope it helps. Good travel is possible; just know that it’s still very different than it once was.