What is essential travel?

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You have undoubtedly seen the term “essential travel” used when talking about travel bans. But what exactly does “essential travel” mean and how should you go about your plans based on the definition given? In this article, I will try to explain what essential travel means and what that means for you and your travel plans. 


What is essential travel?

So far, there is no single definition for essential travel.

With so many different governments, including countries, states, and cities using different standards and definitions it is impossible to have a universal definition on essential travel.

Instead, it is much more of a subjective determination that is based on the person and their circumstances and needs.

Still, we have some guidance that we can use to help us understand what might be allowed and not allowed.


Global travel back to your country

If you are traveling to get back home, that is almost always considered essential travel.

For example, right now if you were traveling back from Europe to the US where you resided then you would be allowed back into the country.

The thing to note here is that you may have to travel through select airports and could be required to quarantine for up to 14 days.

Also, keep in mind that some countries have banned travel outside of their country like Morocco. So just because your country would accept you back, you still could get stranded in another country. Just something to be on the lookout for.

Local travel for basic needs

If your city is given a partial lockdown then essential travel will typically mean getting outside of your house for basic needs.

In San Francisco, some stores that were allowed to stay open are grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants (for delivery only) and hardware stores.

So it follows that in cases like that, essential travel would mean trips to get things like groceries and medications needed.

If a restaurant is allowing you to pick up takeout then a trip to a restaurant could be allowed but if delivery is only allowed then a trip to a restaurant is probably not essential travel.

You should be able to travel to work if you work in certain types of industries that are considered essential like healthcare, police, or in a utility industry such as electricians, plumbers and sanitation workers. Otherwise, your work place may require you to work from home.

Since airports have remained open, I think it would be safe to assume that if you needed to travel by airplane (for an essential need) then your trip to the airport would be considered essential travel as well.

I’ve also seen essential travel to mean travel necessary to help take care of other individuals such as the elderly or young children.

There are no full lockdowns in the US right now that require permission to leave your house. However, there are authorities being placed in certain cities to help monitor the partial lockdown and there is talk about possible fines and jail time for violating the terms of the lockdown.

From what I have heard, the authorities are being extremely understanding and conservative because such a lockdown is unprecedented and many are not sure about what is allowed and not allowed.

What is not essential travel?

The Canadian Prime Minister helped clarify what would be considered nonessential travel and stated that it applies primarily to “tourism and cross-border shopping.” So if you were trying to get to Niagara Falls just to check out the sweet views right now that would definitely not be essential travel. Anything related to leisure activities would fall under this category.

But the Canadian Prime Minister also stated that urgent essential business travel, trade, and other commercial transportation is not included in the travel suspension. So it sounds like if your business would require you to make an urgent trip you would still be allowed to make the trip. 

Now the problem that I see emerging is who do you have to convince that you have an urgent essential business need? 

I think we are still awaiting details on how these things will work out but things could get into a gray area very quickly if there is not clear guidance on how that determination is made.

What about things like ongoing research?

In addition to personal needs and business needs, there are a lot of people who depend on travel to conduct research.

Colorado state has offered the following definition of essential travel:

Essential travel is defined as travel that is required to:

  • Preserve the safety of a research subject and cannot be postponed; or
  • Preserve the results of a research activity and cannot be postponed.

So as you can tell, there is a sense of urgency when it comes to essential travel. That urgency applies to the health or safety of individuals or to an outcome related to business or research needs.

So I think that as things progress over the next few weeks and essential travel becomes more of an issue, your best bet will be to focus on the urgent needs of the travel and how those needs relate to health, safety, or to some other outcome that could be significantly undermined or destroyed by not going through with the travel.

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