What are India’s Latest Guidelines on International Travel?

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  • India now has an air travel bubble agreement with Japan.
  • India has established travel arrangements with Afghanistan and Bahrain.
  • Suspension of Indian international air flight operations extended till September 30, 2020. This will not affect air transport bubble routes and other approved scheduled flights, such as under the Vande Bharat Mission.
  • New rules for passengers traveling to India in effect from August 8.
  • Transport air bubbles currently in place with US, France, Germany, UK, Canada, UAE, Qatar, and Maldives.
  • As of August 18, India is negotiating with 13 more countries to establish air travel arrangements.
  • Foreign nationals holding J-1 and J-1X visas are now permitted to enter India.
  • New standard operating protocol announced August 22 for non-scheduled commercial flights under the repatriation scheme, Vande Bharat Mission, and Air Transport Bubble Agreements.

Commercial international flights have been suspended in India since March 25 this year due to the coronavirus outbreak though limited capacity domestic flight operations were allowed to resume from May 25, after two months. (The capacity on India’s domestic routes has been hiked to 45 percent from 33 percent and will increase to 55 to 60 percent by November.) However, the travel restrictions have not applied to international all-cargo operations.

Below we highlight the latest guidelines for international travel to and from India.

Latest updates

  • The Ministry of Civil Aviation announced India’s air travel bubble with Japan, which will allow Indian and Japanese carriers to operate international flight services between the two countries. The air bubble arrangement allows Indian nationals holding any type of valid visa to travel to Japan. Stranded nationals and residents of Japan and foreign nationals holding valid Japanese visas to travel from India to Japan can travel; all Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) cardholders and individuals with valid visas issued by an Indian mission in any category covered under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) guidelines, are also free to travel. They may, however, be subject to border measures and travel restrictions imposed by the Japanese government at the time of travel. Thus, before issuing the tickets or boarding pass, airlines must ensure that there is no travel restriction in place affecting Indian nationals with a particular visa category to enter Japan.
    To recap, last month, India’s Union Civil Aviation Minister, Hardeep Singh Puri, had announced on Twitter that India was negotiating with 13 countries to establish air bubbles for international flight operations: “These countries include Australia, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Nigeria, Bahrain, Israel, Kenya, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand.” Of these 13 countries, air bubble agreements with Bahrain and Japan have been confirmed.
  • India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation has collated guidelines for air travel arrangements with 10 countries – Afghanistan, Bahrain, Canada, France, Germany, Maldives, Qatar, the UAE, UK, and USA on its website – https://www.civilaviation.gov.in/en/about-air-transport-bubbles.
  • India is suspending international flights till September 30, 2020 – as the civil aviation ministry once again extends the country’s ban on international travel due to COVID-19 (imposed starting March 23) – with the exception of VBM flights and air transport bubble routes. In its circular announcing the extension of the suspension, the the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) noted that: “…international scheduled flights may be allowed on selected routes by the competent authority on a case-to-case basis”.
  • India is considering asking its air travelers to get a COVID-19 test done before flying out of the country after Hong Kong banned Air India flights till August 31 as 11 people tested positive for coronavirus on arrival from Delhi.
  • Phase 6 of the Vande Bharat Mission will begin September 1 and is currently scheduled till October 24 as per the civil aviation ministry. See the government portal link here for flights schedule and other details.
  • India’s new standard operating procedures (SOP) for international travelers was announced by the Ministry of Home Affairs on Saturday, August 22: Persons traveling to India on VBM flights must register themselves with the Indian embassy/consulate in the country they are based. Exception is made for people traveling on the Air Transport Bubble Agreement routes. Passengers on air travel bubble routes will no longer need to register with the Indian embassy portal, according to the Home Secretary A.K. Bhalla, who announced the new protocol. India has established air transport bubble agreements with US, UK, France, Germany, UAE, Qatar, and Maldives.
  • India’s Vande Bharat Mission (VBM), which began May 6 to repatriate stranded Indians abroad due to the coronavirus pandemic is in its fifth phase, till September 1. According to the central government Ministry of Civil Aviation: 3,923 repatriation flights were operated by the Air India Group under VBM till August 21, which included 1,965 inbound flights and 1,958 outbound flights. 
  • The air travel bubble agreement reached between India and the Maldives is in effect; the first flight to Male, the capital, from India left on August 18. This is important news for Maldivians seeking medical treatment in India; India is the second largest and fastest growing tourism market for the Maldives. The Maldives opened their borders to international tourists July 15. 
  • On August 18, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced, “Foreign nationals holding Journalist (J-1) visa and their dependents holding J-1X visa [are] permitted to enter India. If they have J1 or J-1X visas, which are suspended, such visas stand restored with immediate effect. Fresh visas may be obtained if the validity of such visas [has] expired.”
  • Hong Kong has barred Air India from operating flights till the end of August after some passengers arrived testing positive for COVID-19. Passengers traveling to Hong Kong need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 nucleic acid test administered within 72 hours of the scheduled time of departure. 
  • The civil aviation minister HS Puri said on Tuesday that India is negotiating with 13 more countries to establish air bubbles / exclusive bilateral travel arrangements. These include Australia, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Nigeria, Bahrain, Israel, Kenya, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand.
  • Under such bilateral air bubble pacts, airlines of both countries will be able to operate international flights but with certain restrictions.
  • Air travel bubbles have also been proposed with India’s neighboring countries: Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Bhutan.
  • Details are now awaited on these proposed travel arrangements.
  • According to the civil aviation ministry, India’s air travel arrangements are in place with US, UK, France, Germany, Canada, UAE, Qatar, and Maldives.

India’s new guidelines for international arrivals

India’s Ministry of Home Affairs issued new guidelines on Sunday for international passengers traveling to India, which will come in effect starting August 8, 2020, 00:01. See here for the official notification.

The new rules supersede the previous notification published on May 24, 2020. It must be known that while the home ministry’s health protocols apply, India’s respective state governments can develop their own protocol with regards to quarantine and isolation as per their assessment after arrival of passengers. Travelers are therefore requested to also check in with the latest guidelines issued by authorities in the destination state.

Some of the guidelines released by the central government, which will be applicable from August 8, are stated below:

  • All travelers flying to India need to submit a self-declaration form on the online portal – newdelhiairport.in – at least 72 hours before the scheduled travel. On the portal, they must agree to the mandatory quarantine for 14 days – that is, seven days paid institutional quarantine at their own cost, followed by seven days isolation at home with self-monitoring of health.
  • Home quarantine for the full 14 days is permitted only for compelling reasons, such as pregnancy, death in family, serious illness, and parent(s) with children of the age of 10 years or below. They need to apply for such exemption on the online portal (www.newdelhiairport.in) at least 72 hours before boarding. The decision taken by the government as communicated on the online portal will be final.
  • While on board the flight, required precautions, such as wearing of masks, environmental hygiene, respiratory hygiene, hand hygiene etc. are to be observed by airline staff, crew, and all passengers.
  • Travelers may seek exemption from institutional quarantine by submitting a negative RT-PCR test report on arrival. This test should have been conducted within 96 hours prior to undertaking the journey. The test report must be uploaded on the portal for consideration. The passenger has to submit a declaration on the authenticity of the report and will be liable for criminal prosecution, if found otherwise. The test report needs to be produced upon arrival at the point of entry airport in India.
  • Thermal screening will be carried out on all the passengers by the health officials present at the port of entry.

Status of India’s international air operations

The new guidelines for international passengers coming into India do not relate to India’s own international flight operations, which will stay suspended till August 31, 2020. This is because despite multiple lockdowns and a gradual economic reopening (Unlock phase 3), India’s COVID-19 cases continue to surge.

Transport air bubbles set up

However, India is allowing limited movement of passengers via international air bubbles, like many other countries navigating air travel restrictions during the pandemic.

According to a statement by the Indian Director-General of Civil Aviation, Hardeep Singh Puri, “an air bubble is a travel corridor between two countries that will fly their aircraft in a regulated environment.”

India has signed transport bubble agreements with the United States, France, and Germany enabling the operation of a limited number of international flights along these routes.

This travel arrangement allows passengers of Indian and non-Indian nationalities to embark on both legs of their India flights.

India is currently working out the details with the UK to re-open bilateral air routes. The Indian government has now permitted UK carriers to operate flights between the two countries.

However, the ability of passengers to fly to and from India will still depend on how they navigate existing travel restrictions put in place by foreign jurisdictions in their respective destinations.

While quarantine norms and testing criteria stand, passengers must meet India’s home ministry guidelines. Further, travelers should understand the air bubbles will strictly apply to those specific routes. For example, while non-essential travel is being gradually allowed to the European Union, India does not feature in the list of recommended countries from where travel is permitted. Moreover, not every visa type will be allowed entry into the destination country. The reasons for travel allowed to India include repatriation, healthcare, business, manufacturing, expertise in engineering/managerial/design and some other areas, subject to specific conditions being satisfied.

According to ratings agency Icra, India’s passenger traffic levels of 345 million recorded in the year ending March 2019 will likely only be surpassed by the fiscal year 2023. Uncertainty in air traffic recovery will be compounded by subdued demand for leisure travel by risk averse passengers, declining disposable incomes, dip in business travel due to increasing dependence on virtual nodes of communication and firms seeking to cut costs, and the possible continuation of international travel restrictions by various countries.

(Note: This article was originally published on August 4, 2020 and updated on August 31, 2020.)

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India Briefing is produced by Dezan Shira & Associates. The firm assists foreign investors throughout Asia from offices across the world, including in Delhi and Mumbai. Readers may write to india@dezshira.com for business support in India.

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