The wrong mask could prevent you from flying abroad

International travel has increased throughout 2021, and many countries have opened their borders to vaccinated travelers. But the coronavirus pandemic is still ongoing, so you’ll need more than just travel rewards if you’re planning to travel overseas anytime soon.

From the second you arrive at the airport, until you exit, masks are mandatory. At most US airports and on domestic flights, mask requirements are quite broad and generally allow:

  • Disposable surgical or medical masks
  • Tight weave fabric masks (2 or 3 ply masks)
  • Respiratory masks without valve (N95 or KN95)
  • Sheet masks with transparent plastic window
  • Gaiters with at least two layers

But while the United States still follows CDC guidelines that allow homemade fabric masks, other countries aren’t as forgiving about the type of face covering you can wear. In particular, many airlines that fly between the United States and Europe have instituted new mask guidelines banning cloth masks.

Surgical masks and non-valve respirators only

Among the airlines that have banned sheet masks include several major European carriers, including:

  • Air France
  • Croatia Airlines
  • Finnair
  • Lufthansa

Under the new rules, the only masks allowed on these airlines are those regulated for high efficacy. These masks consist of appropriate surgical masks, as well as type FFP, KN95 or N95 masks that do not have an exhaust valve. (FFP stands for Filtering Face Piece and is part of the European testing standard for masks. KN95 is a Chinese testing standard.)

The main reason airlines have added additional mask restrictions is mainly due to the unregulated nature of cloth masks. Even when not built at home, sheet masks do not have to meet set standards. This can greatly vary their effectiveness.

In contrast, surgical masks and respirators are strictly regulated and classified based on the percentage of particles they filter out. Surgical masks, although more effective than cloth masks, are at the bottom of the food chain of effectiveness. The general standards for masks and respirators are:

If you don’t have an approved mask, you probably won’t be allowed to board the plane, and most airlines won’t provide you with the correct face cover. So be sure to bring your own masks.

Cloth masks also banned in some destinations

Depending on your destination, you may need to continue with your surgical masks or valve-less respirators long after you get off the plane. Some European countries, including Germany and Austria, now require them on public transport, at work and in shops.

For the EU at large, the European Center for Disease Control and Protection (ECDC) recommends wearing face masks whenever you are indoors or in contact with vulnerable people, such as the elderly. These recommendations are for everyone, even if you have already been vaccinated.

Most countries, including the United States, also have strict testing requirements to enter the country. You will typically need a negative COVID test within the previous 72 hours before you can board the plane, let alone enter the country.

No matter where you’re headed, be sure to check out the latest guidelines before you set off – and after you land. The coronavirus pandemic is far from over, and the requirements can change quickly as city and country governments respond to new waves and variations.

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