Since Hawaii reopened to travelers last year, the state has been one of the most popular travel destinations for Americans despite its strict entry requirements.
Those requirements have evolved throughout the pandemic. The most recent iteration of its policy came in October with the launch of the Safe Travels Hawaii program, which allowed visitors with a negative coronavirus test result obtained within 72 hours of departure bypass a 10-day quarantine.
There has been speculation that the pretesting requirement may be lifted for fully vaccinated travelers, but at this time, a vaccination eases only inter-island travel for Hawaiian residents.
“At this point, all we can do is go with the current rules of the day and just know that they may change,” says Paula Simpson Takamori, owner of the Hawaiian travel agency Travel To Paradise. “Eventually if you have (been) fully vaccinated, you might be able to travel here without taking a test.”
I’ve been lucky enough to visit Hawaii for business and pleasure about five times before the pandemic, and now that I’m fully vaccinated and flying again, I was eager to see if the process was as straightforward as it sounded. To find out what the process can be like for travelers, I flew about as far across the United States as you can - from Maine to Maui - and documented the experience.
Here’s how to go through Hawaii’s current entry process, and what it was like for me.
- Step 1: Create your Safe Hawaii account
Once you book your trip to Hawaii, you will need to create a Hawaii Safe Travels program account. This is the easy part. I made mine in a minute, and it took about 10 minutes to fill out the personal details, which include your phone number, driver’s license or passport ID, flight information, dates you will be in Hawaii, and the address of the place where you will be staying.
- Step 2: Get an approved test within the allotted time frame
As your flight to Hawaii approaches, you will need to arrange to get a coronavirus test within 72 hours of your final — not departing — flight. If the math confuses you, you’re not alone. Bruce Fisher, owner of the travel agency Hawaii Aloha, created an online calculator to help visitors figure out their testing window.
Once you know when to test, it is critical to get tested at a lab certified by the Hawaii State Department of Health as a trusted testing partner. “That includes Walgreens, Kaiser Permanente, several others,” Fisher says. “There’s also a mailing test that you can get from Vault and also Costco.”
According to the Hawaii covid-19 response website, travelers must get a Nucleic Acid Amplification Test (NAAT), which can be a PCR test — the nasal swab or saliva sample tests that take a few days to process — or qualifying rapid tests.
If you don’t get the right coronavirus test at the right time, get the right coronavirus test at the wrong time, or get the wrong coronavirus test at the right time, you will have to quarantine for 10 days.
“It’s not like you can skirt around this,” Fisher says of the testing requirements. “They’re very serious about it. So these folks (who don’t comply with the rules) are stuck in their hotel room. They have to have food put outside their door ... so they want to go home now, obviously.”
I have taken at least a dozen coronavirus tests, so I felt confident going into this process. Then I actually went through it.
Fisher says some clients get backup tests to make sure their results come in time. The afternoon of my CVS test, I took an additional Vault test over Zoom with a trained clinician and sent the sample away in a UPS drop box. Then the anxiety set in. Would the results come back in time? What if I test positive even though I’m vaccinated? What if I didn’t do something right?
- Step 3: Wait for your results
Once you take your coronavirus test, you will need to wait for your results to arrive. Easier said than done. Fisher says clients often come to him in a panic because they are unsure if their tests will be processed in time.
“We tell folks to really just try to be patient and not freak out because none of these places will tell you that they can guarantee the results in 72 hours,” Fisher says. “We’re constantly talking people off the cliff.”
My CVS results came back in about 24 hours, relieving most of my stress. My Vault test wasn’t processed in time before my flight, perhaps because they were dropped on a Saturday.
Uploading my test results in the Safe Hawaii portal was surprisingly stressful. The night before my flight, I saved my results as a PDF and put them into the system. In the morning on the way to the airport, I logged into the Safe Hawaii portal and discovered an error message next to my results. Something appeared wrong with the date on my test, and it wasn’t approved. I annotated my PDF with additional details about the testing date, uploaded it and was approved.
Still, I was worried it wouldn’t be accepted on arrival and reached out to the Safe Travels help account just in case. A representative told me to email my test results, along with my general travel information, as a backup.
- Step 4: Fill out your health assessment 24 hours before your flight
The Hawaii Safe Travels program will send you an email 24 hours before your flight with a health assessment to fill out. Once you answer the standard health questions, the program will email you a QR code, which you will need to present at the airport to get into Hawaii without quarantining (as long as your negative test result was approved).
“You don’t want to get on the plane without your QR code and a negative test,” Takamori says, noting that if you have proof of a negative test result but no QR code, an airport official may take pity on you and assess the situation. But it’s better to show up with everything sorted.
- Step 5: Print out your test results
Because technology is a cruel mistress, you should print out your essential documents just in case something goes wrong when you arrive in Hawaii. Even if your devices are charged and working, there may be technical glitches that could complicate your entry process.
“There are some times when the website tells people they don’t have a valid test when they do,” Fisher says. “We had that yesterday - a couple several times, actually. So I just tell people, ‘Don’t worry ... sometimes the technology doesn’t work properly.’”
Cover your bases by having your QR code and test results - with your name and where your test took place - in hard copies.
I didn’t have access to a printer until the day of my flight. I spent my layover in Seattle panic-printing documents in the Delta lounge. I haven’t traveled with so many pieces of paper since I had to print out MapQuest directions.
- Step 6: Fly to Hawaii, and show your documentation to airport personnel
When I landed in Maui, the line to get through the entry process was so long I couldn’t see the end of it. Fisher says wait times will depend on how many flights are coming in at once and not everyone will experience my hour-long queue.
If you are connecting to another island, airport attendants will take you to a different line, and you may have to fill out additional paperwork. I was told by my flight attendant that travelers to Maui needed to download the AlohaSafe Alert App; however, no one checked to see if I had.
During my turn at the processing desk, an attendant asked for my QR code and photo ID. I was cleared and given permission to start my quarantine-free stay in Hawaii.
The process overall was doable, albeit anxiety-inducing along the way. Working with a travel adviser may have alleviated some of the logistical worries, but judging from the crowd at the airport, people are navigating the entry requirements on their own just fine.