How Do Vaccine Passports Affect Travel?


Covid–19 vaccine passports are now mandatory for most passengers boarding domestic and international flights in Canada. Here is what you need to know.

This story was originally published in February 2021 and was updated in January 2022.

When was the last time you curled your toes in warm sand on a distant coastline? Or ticked a new destination off your bucket list? Many people are longing to travel again and there are a number of countries implementing solutions that could help ease the world back into travel. While mandatory testing for Covid–19 on departure or arrival (or both) and quarantine requirements are already in effect in many places, proof of vaccination against Covid–19 is now required for anyone aged 12 or older to board domestic and international flights originating in Canada. They are also required enter many other countries.

Related: Where Can Canadians Travel Right Now?

What is a Covid–19 vaccine passport?

A Covid–19 vaccine passport functions as proof that you’ve received a specific Covid–19 vaccine and have the necessary immunity to travel. Variations on the concept already exist, notes Dr. Kumanan Wilson, a professor with the University of Ottawa’s Department of Medicine and a member of Canada’s Covid–19 Immunity Task Force. The immunization cards required by public schools in some jurisdictions and the International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (ICVP) required by certain countries for diseases like yellow fever are two examples. These have traditionally been paper‑based, but there are efforts underway globally to roll out digital vaccine passports.

January 20, 2022
Passengers social distancing in an airport
   Photo: Ethan Wilkinson

Why would I need a vaccine passport for travel?

To depart from Canadian airports or travel on VIA Rail and Rocky Mountaineer trains, travellers 12 years of age plus four months, or older need to provide proof that they have been fully vaccinated, unless they qualify for an exemption. 

Covid–19 vaccine passports allow those who are immunized to travel while minimizing the risks and spread of the disease. They are also a less time‑consuming and costly alternative to airport Covid‑19 testing and quarantine requirements enforced in many jurisdictions.

More broadly, proponents of the vaccine passports say they enable reopening the economy and society in general.

Rows of Covid-19 vaccine vials with metallic blue lids
   Photo: Daniel Schludi

How do vaccine passports work?

At the most basic level, depending on the jurisdiction, you may need to show a paper certificate along with a form of ID, such as a health card or driver’s license, that proves you have been vaccinated. It may have a QR code for easy scanning. The ultimate goal has been to create a secure pass for a digital wallet or app, with encrypted signatures that functions like a boarding pass and be linked specifically to your identity, says Wilson, who is also the chief executive for CANImmunize, an app that helps Canadians securely track and manage their vaccination record digitally.

All Canadian provinces and territories have now successfully implemented, government–issued digital proof of vaccination featuring a QR code. Instead of issuing a singular Covid–19 vaccine passport, the Government of Canada requires each province and territory to issue a digital mobile app–based “standardized pan–Canadian” vaccine passport that Canadian residents can use to board flights within Canada and travel with abroad. This standardized proof of vaccine is now available in all 10 provinces and three territories.

A woman sitting in an empty airport lounge
   Photo: Lei Jiang

What are other countries and organizations doing?

Numerous bilateral or trilateral vaccine passport deals are being signed, and many countries (including several in Europe, Asia and the Middle East) have begun issuing or are moving to issue vaccine certificates, allowing travellers to bypass quarantine requirements.

The most notable of these is the European Union’s Digital Covid Certificate, which is a standardized proof, adopted by the bloc’s 27 member states. The certificate shows person has either been vaccinated against Covid–19, received a negative test result, or recovered from Covid–19 and is intended to facilitate travel within the EU. Thirty–three countries outside the EU have also joined the EU Digital COVID Certificate system, but this does not include Canada. However, EU member states can still accept vaccination certificates from non–EU countries that are not part of the scheme. 

There are also projects underway involving a cross–section of industries and groups such as health facilities, airlines and airports, allowing travellers to securely and privately share their test results and vaccination status.

Some of the biggest efforts underway include the Covid–19 Credentials Initiative, hosted by Linux Foundation Public Health; the global airline industry’s IATA Travel Pass Initiative; and CommonPass. The Commons Project – the organization behind the latter pass – is also part of the Vaccination Credential Initiative.