- Those foreign nationals who wish to travel to India for medical treatment can apply for a fresh visa under this category and choose one attendant to accompany them as per the visa category provisions (that is, if the original applicant has their medical visa approved).
- As of October 22, 2020, India is allowing all foreign and Indian nationals (including OCI and PIO card holders) to travel to India (except for tourists) and all existing visas (except for tourist and electronic visas) are restored.
- As of October 21, India has travel bubble arrangements with the US, the UK, Germany, France, the UAE, Maldives, Canada, Japan, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Qatar, Iraq, Oman, Bhutan, Kenya, Bangladesh, and Ukraine.
- India is in talks with Italy, Kazakhstan, and others for similar transport air bubble arrangements, as per civil aviation authorities.
- India has air bubble agreements with 18 countries, including now Bangladesh and Ukraine. Flights between Bangladesh and India will resume October 28. More details below.
- Air India announced it will operate additional flights between India and Canada from October 25 to March 27, 2021 and bookings for the flights have started. India has an air bubble with Canada.
- On October 8, 2020, India’s civil aviation authority said the future of international flights will depend on the availability of a vaccine, hinting at the extension of air travel bubble arrangements into March-April next year.
- Low-cost carrier SpiceJet announces its new flight operations connecting Delhi and Mumbai with London, starting December 4, which will come under the India-UK air bubble agreement.
- Regular international flights to remain suspended till October 31.
- Air bubble arrangements now exist with 16 countries – Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bhutan, Canada, France, Germany, Iraq, Japan, Kenya, the Maldives, Nigeria, Oman, Qatar, the UAE, the UK, and the US.
- Suspension of regular Indian international air flight operations extended till October 31, 2020. This does not affect air bubble arrangements/Vande Bharat Mission.
- New rules for passengers traveling to India in effect from August 8.
- 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. While travel restrictions to India have been relaxed, the country’s borders are still closed to tourists.
Below we highlight the latest guidelines for international travel to and from India.
- In a major breakthrough for the country’s medical tourism industry, the home ministry said that in case a foreign national intended to visit India for medical treatment, they will need to apply for a fresh visa under this category, and if approved, the person seeking medical treatment could choose one attendant to get a visa.
- Breaking News: India’s union home ministry announced on Thursday, October 22, 2020, that the country will be easing visa and travel restrictions for foreign and Indian nationals that wished to enter or leave India. The categories of visas through which people can now enter India include for business, conferences, employment, studies, research, and medical purposes. Barring electronic and tourist visas, all categories of visas will be restored to allow foreign nationals, Indians, as well as holders of Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) cards and People of Indian Origin (PIO) cards to enter the country through authorized airports and seaport immigration check posts. “This includes flights operated under Vande Bharat Mission, Air Transport Bubble arrangements or by any non scheduled commercial flights as allowed by the Ministry of Civil Aviation,” the home ministry’s statement said. All travelers coming into India will have to adhere to the government stipulations on quarantine and COVID-19 testing.
- India and Bangladesh now have an air bubble agreement in place. Flights between the two countries will resume from October 28, 2020 under this agreement, after an eight-month suspension. While both countries can operate commercial flights, only three Bangladesh airlines NovoAir, Biman Bangladeshi Airlines, and US-Bangla Airlines have been permitted to to operate, and will fly 28 flights per week. Biman will fly on the Dhaka-Delhi and Dhaka-Kolkata routes, US-Bangla Airlines on the Dhaka-Chennai route, and NovoAir will operate on the Dhaka-Kolkata route.
Meanwhile, five Indian airlines will operate the same number of flights per week, namely IndiGo, Vistara, SpiceJet, Air India, and GoAir, along these expected routes – Dhaka-Delhi, Dhaka-Kolkata, Dhaka-Chennai, and Dhaka-Mumbai.
- India now has an air travel bubble arrangement with Ukraine. As per media reports, Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, will be the base for flights between the two countries. India is yet to confirm from which Indian cities will flights operate. The air bubble arrangement with Ukraine is said to be valid until November 30 this year.
- India and Germany are still in talks to resume their currently suspended air bubble agreement, which was triggered when Lufthansa carried sixth freedom passengers (passengers flying from one country to another, to board a connecting flight to a third country; many Indians use international carriers like Lufthansa or Emirates to travel to the US or Canada). India does not allow this under its air bubble agreement terms. This is why the Indian Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) cancelled Lufthansa’s flights between India and Germany from September 30 to October 20.
Meanwhile, Germany has reportedly withdrawn its order that resulted in the halt of Air India flights to Frankfurt till October 14. India’s civil aviation minister Hardeep Puri said: “The issue is not about allowing foreign carriers in or not. We are all for foreign carriers operating here. Make no mistake. But I think the time has come for the message to go out loud and clear that it will not be done at the expense of the Indian carriers.” He also said, “Under the regulated (air bubble) arrangements, we are not insisting on total parity. Even near parity will do.”
- Answering a question on whether the air travel bubble arrangements would continue till March-April, on October 8, India’s union civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri said, “It is difficult to say as there is no country which has completely opened its borders for all. It depends on the availability of a vaccine as countries will feel more confident once a vaccine is there.
“There are basically three issues to consider before resuming regular international flights. One, resuming domestic connectivity connecting bigger cities to smaller town, which we have already done. Second, the nature of the virus on which I can’t comment and the third is international restrictions. Every country wants their people to return, but for others there are plenty of restrictions,” Puri was reported saying.
- India is planning to operate two Vande Bharat flights between Delhi and the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou on October 23 and 30 to facilitate the travel of Indians stranded in the country due to restrictions imposed to combat the pandemic. The flights will allow the travel of Indians holding valid work visas to return to China as well as repatriate Indians who want to return home. India has so far operated five Vande Bharat flights to China (flying to Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Ningbo).
- India’s low-cost carrier, SpiceJet, announced it will operate non-stop flights connecting Delhi and Mumbai with London from December 4, which will come under India’s air bubble agreement with the UK. SpiceJet will use an Airbus A330-900 Neo aircraft for these flights. The 371-seater twin-aisle A330 has a configuration of 353 economy and 18 business class seats,” it added.
- India-Germany travel has been impacted. According to reporting by the Hindustan Times, “Lufthansa has cancelled all its flights till October as India has rejected its October schedule where Germany is flying more flights to India but the number of Indian airlines entering Germany is restricted. Negotiations are going on in this regard.”
- Travel agreements with Oman and Kenya were finalized over the last few days.
- The list of countries with whom India has air bubble agreements has expanded to 16 destinations – Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bhutan, Canada, France, Germany, Iraq, Japan, Kenya, the Maldives, Nigeria, Oman, Qatar, the UAE, the UK, the US.
- 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 October 12, 2020.)