Travelling to India during COVID: Process and Personal Experience

Note: The following information is very specific to my personal experience of planning travel to India and flying with Emirates. You may have a different experience based on the airline you choose and your destination city. Hence, be sure to do your own due diligence.  

Process as of: July 2021
Airline: Emirates
Travel route: Toronto – Dubai – Mumbai


PRE-TRAVEL

  1. Ensure you’re fully vaccinated and retain vaccine receipts. This is NOT a mandatory requirement for international travel but it is VERY essential if you intend to file for exemption from institutional quarantine in India. Plus, it will also be helpful to re-enter Canada. While transiting through Dubai, they do not ask for vaccination details.
    • A note on mixed vaccines: In order to be considered fully vaccinated, certain countries like the U.S. are not acknowledging mixed vaccines (eg. first dose of Pfizer and second dose of Moderna). Guidelines are changing all the time, so do keep a track of all countries you’re transiting through as well as the end destination. For India – there is no clarity whether they’re accepting mixed vaccines. Personally, I made it a point to stick to the same vaccine for both doses so I’m not aware of how they’re treating cases with mixed vaccines.
      • Tip: Print out all your vaccine receipts. You will need to show it upon arrival while claiming exemption from institutional quarantine. Based on my first-hand (very limited) experience, it seems like they’re not accepting digital documents at the airport.  
  2. Book your air ticket as much in advance as possible. If you’re looking to fly ASAP, try your best to factor in a minimum timeframe of at least 3 days (72 hours) for completing all travel related formalities for a smooth journey. You will need your flight information to fill out other essential forms. On Emirates, you will have the option to choose your seats. However, there’s no guarantee that you will be assigned the same seat. See official response here. If you’re looking to book an Emirates flight from Toronto, they operate 5 direct flights to Dubai (on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday); all flights depart at 9:45 PM. 
  3. Get PCR test done – this is a mandatory requirement for flying to India. Switch Health in Canada has a tie-up with Emirates and they are also the ones who have been appointed by the Canadian Government to conduct PCR tests for arriving passengers at Toronto airport. The PCR test for travel costs about $180 (cheapest one in Toronto is approx. $160). They offer a $20 discount if you use a coupon code, making it the cheapest one. You will get the code on the webpage after you book your air tickets – keep an eye out for that; it’s in the fine print. Test results are usually available the same day or early next day. I received my results in less than 12 hours of taking the test. 
    • Tip: For same day results, book your test in the first half of the day (before 11:30 am). 
    • Note: Switch Health only provides digital results. Emirates requires you to have a physical copy of the test so, you will need to print it. 
    • Potential questions you may have: Is the PCR test mandatory? What to do if you need to travel in less than 24 hours? 
      • The PCR test is mandatory for travel and is essential in two scenarios: (1) to board the airplane and (2) to enter India. 
        • Boarding the airplane: If you don’t have a PCR test and/or are travelling at short notice, it might be best to call the airline, ask about their exemption criteria and then provide supporting documentation that they ask. 
        • Entering India: There are exemptions in place for situations such as exigency of death in the family or extreme family distress, etc. If you can provide a death certificate or other medical documents, it is possible to claim exemption from two things: PCR test AND institutional quarantine. 
  4. Once you have your PCR test result, visit the Air Suvidha website and fill out the Self-Declaration Form (SDF). You will need to attach a copy of your passport and the negative COVID test result. Once you submit the form online, you will immediately get an email with an attachment – a filled-in PDF version of the form. You will need to print this form. It is required at multiple checkpoints: prior to boarding the airplane, while in transit at Dubai, and also when you land in India. 
    • If you’re claiming for exemption, fill out the Exemption form BEFORE filling the SDF. This will require you to attach a death certificate or medical certificate supporting your case for travel to India.
    • Approval timeline: I’m not sure about their Standard Operating Process (SOP), but in my case I had applied 10 days before my travel date and only received the approval on the day of my travel.
    • The approval is sent to your email with an attachment – a PDF file indicating that you’re exempt from institutional quarantine. You will need to print this out. Just like the SDF, it will be required at multiple checkpoints: prior to boarding the airplane, while in transit at Dubai, and also when you land in India.
    • Note that rejections are very common and you cannot appeal the decision. So, if you don’t have a strong case and/or supporting documents, it may be best to not apply for exemption.
  5. Optional: Fill the Undertaking form. I’m unsure if this form has to be filled out for other Indian cities. My understanding is that it is only required for those travelling to Mumbai. This form will be given to you in-flight from DXB to BOM. So, it’s optional to fill it out in advance. 
    • Note: There are 2 versions of the Undertaking form: Version 1 (for those with valid PCR test report taken 72 hours prior to departure and claiming institutional quarantine exemption) and Version 2 (for those who need to take the PCR test at the airport and avail of the home quarantine option). The form distributed in-flight is Version 2 so if you decide to print it out in advance, you may want to print this one.
  6. Vaccine self-declaration form: This is VERY IMPORTANT if you’re claiming institutional quarantine exemption. Ensure to print it out, fill it and attach your vaccination receipts. If you don’t have the form upon arrival at Mumbai, (I think) they will give you a copy and ask you to fill it. 
    • Tip: At Mumbai airport, it tends to get very chaotic at that particular counter and no one observes physical distancing measures, so it might be helpful to have this form ready to submit rather than spend more time in a crowded area in the sweltering heat. [Post baggage claim at Mumbai I constantly wondered if the air conditioning was working. It was HOT!]
  7. Lastly, have a few face masks ready to use. It’s a long journey and from a hygiene standpoint, you’ll want to change your masks periodically – even if you’re using cloth masks. Gloves are recommended but not mandatory. During my trip, I didn’t see any of the passengers wearing gloves. 

DURING TRAVEL

At Toronto Pearson

  • As with all international travel, plan to arrive at the airport at least 3 hours prior to departure time. The check-in process at Toronto Pearson is very efficient and quick so it shouldn’t take you long. Emirates is no longer issuing digital boarding passes. You can, however, check-in online 48 hours prior to departure and select your seats. They will issue a physical boarding pass when you check-in at the airport. 
    • Note: As part of COVID protocol there are dedicated entrance points to Pearson and any non-travellers accompanying you to the airport are not allowed inside. You will have to say your goodbyes curbside. Latest details regarding drop-offs and parking at Pearson are available on the airport website
  • As you line up for check-in, have the SDF, your approved Exemption form, copy of death/medical certificate supporting the exemption form, and the negative COVID test result ready. Airline representatives will verify the documents and then ask you to proceed to the check-in counter. 
  • At the check-in counter, you will have to once again show the same documents. The representative will confirm your address and phone number for India and enter it on their system along with some other details filled out on your form. You will also be asked about your purpose of travel and you will be required to verbally consent that you’re OK with not maintaining physical distancing on the airplane. Rest of the process is the same as regular travel – they will weigh your luggage and print the boarding pass.   
  • Beyond check-in you won’t need the documents. Just have your passport and boarding pass handy. 
    • Note: At any of the checkpoints, they will not retain your documents. Once they verify the information, they will return your documents to you.
  • Next, you head over to security. On the way to the security zone, there’s body temperature/thermal screening. After taking your temperature, a representative will let you know which security counter you should go to. 
  • Security process is the same as during regular travel – they screen your bags and belongings and you walk through the metal detector. 
  • After completing security, you can head over to your boarding gate. 
  • Note: Throughout the airport, water fountains are not available for use. So, if you need drinking water, you will have to purchase a water bottle. It’s the same situation with restaurants – most places are shut. Only a limited number of restaurants, stores and cafes are operational. 

In-flight YYZ to DXB

  • Everything is business as usual. I’ve flown with Emirates before and in my experience the quality of service has dropped a notch (eg. food, wifi, a couple of non-functioning washrooms, etc.). Nevertheless, it’s still way better than flying Air Canada or Air India. 

At Dubai airport

  • Once you alight at Dubai, you will have to go through security screening again. No documents or passport is required here. This process is the same as pre-COVID travel.
  • Next, check the boarding gate for your connecting flight. Typically, for the YYZ-DXB-BOM route, the layover in Dubai is 3 and a half hours. Due to COVID protocols, instead of 45 minutes they start boarding one and a half hour before departure time. So, be mindful of time and arrive at your boarding gate well in advance. 
  • Here, once again you will be required to show all your documents viz., the SDF, approved Exemption form (if you have one), death/medical certificate supporting the Exemption form, and the negative COVID test result. 
  • After verification, they will give you a PPE. It is mandatory to wear the PPE on the flight from Dubai to Mumbai. They will not let you board the airplane if you don’t wear it. Heads up: DXB-BOM is the most uncomfortable leg of the journey due to the requirement of wearing a mask + PPE.

In-flight DXB to BOM

  • No major changes for in-flight service. Similar to the YYZ-DXB leg, it’s business as usual. I found the quality of service on the second leg of the journey to be better than the first. 
  • As indicated above in the ‘pre-travel’ section, they will give you an Undertaking form to be filled. You can skip this if you’ve already printed it out and filled it.

ARRIVAL AT MUMBAI

  • First, you can take off the PPE right after deboarding the airplane but remember to keep the mask on! 
  • As you walk towards immigration, at the first checkpoint they will ask to see the SDF form. They don’t check it in detail but merely glance at it and let you through. They may ask for your passport. I saw some passengers being asked to show theirs. I didn’t have to show my passport.
  • Immigration counters are business as usual.
  • Next, head over to baggage claim. On the way to baggage claim, you’ll see notices asking you to download the Aarogya Setu app. No one asks to see it on your phone but it may be better to have it installed just in case they check. 
  • Once you collect your baggage, proceed to customs. Here, as usual, they will screen your bags and if you’re unlucky like me, you may get stopped by a customs officer who will want to see your passport and boarding pass and ask you a bunch of questions such as: where are you travelling from, what’s your occupation, do you have any goods with you that amount to over INR 50,000, after how long are you returning to India, have you purchased any new electronics that you’ve bought with you, which phone do you use, how many phones do you have, what kind of items are in your luggage, etc. Thankfully, they didn’t ask me to open my luggage. On one of my previous trips, I had to open my luggage and let them inspect it. 
  • After customs, you will head over to the section for claiming quarantine exemption. Have the following documents ready:
    • Your passport 
    • Boarding pass 
    • SDF form 
    • Exemption form (if you have one) + death/medical certificate supporting your Exemption form 
    • Negative COVID test result 
    • The undertaking form 
    • Self-declaration form for vaccination + vaccination receipts
  • There are a few different queues here: one is for those travelling to an address that’s within the jurisdiction of Mumbai district, another is for ‘Rest of Maharashtra’ and (I don’t recall correctly but I think I saw) a queue for those travelling outside Maharashtra either by flight or by road. The representatives at these counters will determine whether you are exempt from institutional quarantine or not. If you don’t qualify for exemption, there are shuttle buses waiting outside and you will be taken to a quarantine facility. This is also the point where they will ask you to make the payment for your stay. If you qualify for exemption, they will direct you to another counter.
  • At the second counter, they will check all the above listed documents again. They will specifically look for vaccination receipts and inquire about HOW you will travel from the airport to your destination address. If there’s anyone picking you up at the airport, you have to provide their name and vehicle license plate number. Remember to fill this information on the Undertaking form. I’m unsure of the process to be followed if you decide to take a cab or book an Ola/Uber from the airport. 
  • Once you’re all done with the forms, you have to go to another counter to get the stamp of institutional quarantine exemption. At this counter, they will (yet again) check all the documents listed above and if everything seems to be in order, they will stamp your boarding pass and also add a stamp on your left hand. 
  • After this, you can put away all the forms. Only have your boarding pass and passport out.
  • Then take the elevator and go downstairs towards the exit. Follow directions until you reach the exit point. You will be asked for your boarding pass here to verify the quarantine exemption. The representative will ask your contact number in India and write it on your boarding pass.
  • As you step out of the airport, you once again need to show the boarding pass and your passport. The representative will manually make a note of all your details in their register. 
  • As you exit the checkpoint, another representative will ask to see the stamp on your hand – this is the final verification step. 
  • You are now free to leave the airport. 
  • At all checkpoints, no one retains your forms and documents; it will all be handed over to you once they examine and verify it. So, essentially you don’t need multiple copies. But perhaps have a duplicate set for good measure. 
  • Note: If you’ve travelled to Mumbai before, the regular exit at the airport (near the water fountain) is no longer accessible. You will instead exit near P4 which is only restricted to quarantine shuttle buses and airport cabs. Private vehicles are not allowed here. So, you will need to take the elevator and walk to the parking lot at P5 or P6. 
  • This marks the end of a 20+ hour long journey. Be prepared to quarantine at home for the next 14 days. 

Safe travels! 


P.S. If you’re reading this and have travelled to India with mixed vaccines, or if you have any other relevant experience/information to share that might benefit other travellers, please leave a comment so I can update this post.


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