The Wrong Mask Could Stop You From Flying Internationally

by Brittney Myers | Published on Oct. 3, 2021

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A row of masked passengers on an airplane.

Image source: Getty Images

Cloth masks won't cut it on several European airlines.

International travel has risen throughout 2021, and many countries have opened their borders to vaccinated travelers. But the coronavirus pandemic is still ongoing, so you'll need more than just travel rewards if you plan on traveling overseas anytime soon.

From the second you hit the airport, on through until you exit, masks are a requirement. In most U.S. airports and on domestic flights, the mask requirements are fairly broad and typically allow:

  • Disposable surgical or medical masks
  • Cloth masks with tightly woven fabric (2- or 3-ply masks)
  • Valve-free respirator masks (N95 or KN95)
  • Fabric masks with a clear plastic window
  • Gaiters with at least two layers

But while the U.S. is still following the CDC guidelines that allow for homemade cloth masks, other countries are not as lenient about the type of face coverings you can wear. In particular, many airlines that fly between the U.S. and Europe have instituted new mask guidelines prohibiting cloth masks.

Surgical masks and valveless respirators only

Among the airlines that have banned cloth masks are several major European carriers, including:

  • Air France
  • Croatia Airlines
  • Finnair
  • LATAM
  • Lufthansa
  • SWISS

According to the new rules, the only masks allowed on these airlines are those regulated for high efficiency. These masks consist of proper surgical masks, as well as FFP, KN95, or N95-type masks that do not have an exhaust valve. (FFP stands for Filtering Face Piece, and is a part of the European testing standard for masks. KN95 is a Chinese testing standard.)

The main reason airlines have added extra mask restrictions is mainly due to the unregulated nature of cloth masks. Even when not constructed at home, cloth masks do not have to meet any set standards. This can cause their effectiveness to vary greatly.

In contrast, surgical masks and respirators are strictly regulated and categorized based on the percentage of particles that they filter. Surgical masks, while more effective than cloth masks, are at the bottom of the efficacy food chain. General mask and respirator standards are:

Designation Filtration Percentage
FFP1 At least 80%
FFP2 At least 94%
N95, KN95 At least 95%
FFP3, N99 At least 99%

If you don't have an approved mask, you will likely not be allowed to board the plane, and most airlines will not provide you with the appropriate face covering. So be sure to bring your own masks.

Cloth masks also banned in some destinations

Depending on your destination, you may need to carry on with your surgical masks or valveless respirators well after you disembark from the plane. Some European countries, including Germany and Austria, now require them on public transit, in workplaces, and in shops.

As for the broader EU, the European Center for Disease Control and Protection (ECDC) recommends wearing face masks whenever indoors or in contact with vulnerable people, such as the elderly. These recommendations are for everyone, even if you're already vaccinated.

Most countries -- including the U.S. -- also have stringent testing requirements to enter the country. You'll generally need a negative COVID test from within the previous 72 hours before you will be allowed on the plane, let alone into the country.

No matter where you're headed, be sure to check the latest guidelines before you go -- and after you land. The coronavirus pandemic is far from over, and requirements can change quickly as city and country governments react to new waves and variants.

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