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New China travel policy makes travel uncertain for Oakland residents

on December 16, 2020

Sally Wang wanted to take her three year-old child to China in early March to spend time with her family. But the ticket prices were too high, so she opted to wait.

 “I’ve been waiting for eight months to learn about the travel policy, get the paperwork, and check ticket prices,” she says.

Wong was very excited about going back home to see her parents after two years when she finally got to book the tickets.

But then the Chinese embassy in the U.S. announced a new travel policy that would go into effect from Nov.6, 2020. To prevent “cross-border transmission” of COVID-19, all passengers to China would be required to take two tests before boarding their flight.

“This new policy came out too suddenly,” Wang says. “I was to travel that week. There was no opportunity to change or think about it at all.”

The first test is the nucleic acid test, done within 48 hours of flying, which shows that passengers are not carrying the virus and are not asymptomatic. The other is an antigen/IgM antibody test. IgM antibodies are produced about five to seven days after infection. If travelers receive negative tests, they must then apply to their nearest embassy for a green health code with the “HS” mark or certified health declaration form.

“The antibody test IgM is not going to give us insurance that a person is contagious. So the IgM test does not make any sense if the goal is to protect people from the traveler,” said John Swartzberg, editorial board chair at UC Berkeley Health and Wellness Publications. “But it only makes sense if you want to limit the number of people traveling because there are going to be a lot of false tests.”

This new policy has created several challenges for travelers to China.

The first is that passengers need to take the tests, get the results and apply for the health form within 48 hours of boarding. But most testing agencies in the U.S. don’t complete the process within that time frame, let alone produce the test results.

.Another problem is that a traveler needs to take both tests again if they stop in transit to China. Most transit countries won’t issue temporary visas because of COVID-19, so it is impossible to leave the airport to get the two tests and the required embassy certificate.

Asiana Airlines, an affordable flight option for many students heading to China, was grounded in April this year due to the epidemic. In September, flights resumed with tickets costing around $3,000, with a transit stop in South Korea.

China’s new policy forced some people to choose direct flights whose prices are exorbitant, costing about $6,000. Many had to cancel their trips.

Typically, the flights from the U.S to China cost about $800-$2,000 for an economy seat roundtrip.

 On the day the policy took effect, Sherry Zhang, a Berkeley law student, returned to her hometown Nanjing on November 6. Zhang feels lucky to be back home and has paid only $3,000 for a direct flight. Her travel was not affected by the new policy because she got a direct flight so she didn’t have to take the tests again in transit. 

“The direct flights could cost over $10,000 now, because only direct flights can go back to China,” said Zhang.

Many Chinese nationals are complaining that the policies to return home are “ever-changing.” First, it was the initial health check-in everyday for 15 days, then the nucleic acid test within three days of boarding. By far, the most onerous is the double negative test certificate within 48 hours.

“If the difficulty of the first two policies is to climb a big mountain, then the double-negative policy’’ is likely to reach the sky,” Zhang said. “I felt so lucky I took off before the new policy.”

Wang, the biotech researcher, had to return her tickets because they were not for a direct flight. She’s waiting to see if the prices or policies change.

“I am completely afraid to buy tickets after December, because no one knows what new policies will be in a month or two,” she said.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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