We arrived in France one month ago, and immediately began navigating a new world where a “vaccine passport” is a requirement for daily living. In France they call it a “pass sanitaire,” or health pass. Here’s what it has been like for our American family of 5 to adapt to a vaccine passport system.
At the Airport
When going through customs, proof of vaccination is now required along with a travel passport in France, as well as in several of the other countries that we have traveled through. I think Greece was still accepting negative Covid test results. But after recent announcements, they are definitely the exception and not the rule. Immigration officials check the type of vaccine you received. Ours is Pfizer, which is on France’s approved list along with Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca and Covishield. They also verify the date of the last shot to make sure that it has been at least 14 days since it was administered. It has not added much time at all to the normal customs process and we have not had any problems.
Customs is not the only place where you need to have your vaccine cards ready (a picture of the vaccine card usually works too). Honestly, it seems to me that we have needed to present our vaccine cards more often than our passports at the airport. In Greece, we had to show our vaccine cards in order to check a bag onto the flight. You need it when you check in, when you go through security, and then again at least once (sometimes twice) at the gate before boarding the plane. If you have your cards ready to go, this process is usually smooth and quick.
Trains and Busses
We have not used any trains or busses in France–yet! We definitely will on our upcoming trip to Paris. But everything I have read indicates that it is the same story–we will need to show proof of vaccination in order to board any type of public transportation.
At Restaurants and Cafés
If you want to eat or drink at public locations in France, you have to be vaccinated or have documentation of a very recent Covid test. For French citizens, this means that they have the “pass sanitaire” and a QR code that goes with it. I have read several articles that claim that Americans can be added to this system by going to a French pharmacy and presenting your vaccine card. We’ve been to three different pharmacies in three different cities and this has not worked for us. The people at the pharmacy were very nice, but they were unable to add us to the French system, despite their best efforts.
When someone greets us at the door of a restaurant with a scanner, ready to scan our QR codes, we have to explain that we are Americans and we don’t have QR codes. Instead we say “here is the white paper card that we get in our country.” (To be honest, it feels a little hokey to have a white paper card instead of a fancy high-tech QR code like all of the Europeans.)
We were turned away one time from one café in a random little village somewhere on the way to Normandy. It seemed the owner was seriously just in the mood to be contrary. He was very dramatic and threw his hands around asking, “How can I scan that? I must scan it! The government requires it! I can’t scan that.” Everyone else has been very kind and accepted our cards without a problem (including the café right next door to the dramatic guy’s café). We have been to dozens of restaurants and other food establishments in France. Most businesses are anxious to welcome tourists. But I really do wish we could get the QR code so that we wouldn’t have to do the big explanation every time. And there is always a bit of a worry that we will be declined.
Museums/Theaters/Sporting Events/Public Concerts
Basically, if you want to do anything fun in France, you have to have some version of a vaccine passport–either the pass sanitaire or something equivalent. It is a similar process that you need to present your vaccine card–except explanations for our American cards aren’t required as much because the workers at these locations seem very familiar with the American white cards. Again, we have not had any problems or been denied entry at any of these public venues. Also, pictures of our vaccine cards have worked just as well as the actual cards at most of these locations.
We had to present our vaccine card one time to go into the grocery store. But it was only once and never again; all of the other times we have just walked in. I do not believe vaccine passports are generally required at grocery stores. I do not know why we were asked for them on that day.
How do the French Feel About All of This?
There was a quote being circulated that was mistakenly attributed to French President Emmanuel Macron which reads: “I no longer have any intention of sacrificing my life, my time, my freedom and the adolescence of my daughters, as well as their right to study properly, for those who refuse to be vaccinated. This time you stay at home, not us.” Turns out, President Macron didn’t say that, an Italian journalist did on her Facebook page, and along the way it got attributed to Macron. However, I would say that this quote still captures the overall message of the French government to its citizens. The pass sanitaire is a system that requires the unvaccinated to carry the burden of restrictions on normal life, while the vaccinated are allowed to pretty much go about business as usual.
In France, in response to this new system, there have been weeks and weeks of protests, some violent. However, more people are getting vaccinated each and every day than are showing up at the protests.
Honestly, I don’t really know how the average French citizen feels about the pass sanitaire. I’m sure a wide range of opinions exist, just like in the United States. I have talked to some who have protested–they believe in the effectiveness of the vaccine, but value the idea of liberty and so they don’t agree with this system. At church, our Bishop briefly brought it up when talking about Covid precautions. He acknowledged that all feelings are valid and should be honored. I got the clear feeling that there were differing views in the room. The pass sanitaire is not required to attend church, HOWEVER, it is required if you want to serve food at church (beyond sacramental bread). And I have definitely heard “pass sanitaire” being referenced in many conversations of random passersby. Sadly, my French is not good enough for effective eavesdropping.
Is it working?
Yes, it’s working. Millions of people have gotten vaccinated since the pass sanitaire was implemented. About 64% of the French population is fully vaccinated and 74% have had at least one dose, according to Our World In Data. French Covid cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all dropping dramatically. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the curve representing the number of new coronavirus cases is heading steadily upward, while America lags behind all of the world’s wealthiest democracies in its vaccination rate. It’s hard to argue with these statistics.
Benefits for Travelers
In making our plans to come to France at a time when the world is emerging from a pandemic, we didn’t know how things would be once we got here. We decided to just keep an open mind and go with the flow. We thought that it was possible there would be a lot of things we couldn’t do. However, we are finding that for vaccinated travelers, it is a GREAT time to visit Europe! Crowds are small and there are no lines.
Many of the travel blogs and other articles that I have read spend a lot of time discussing how to avoid crowds and lines at some of these big venues. It seems that waiting for hours in line to visit various attractions was the pre-Covid norm. But everywhere we’ve been, the crowds have been small and lines have not been an issue whatsoever–even at prime times. It seems that our “vaccine passport” also unexpectedly functions as a “skip the line pass.”
But it is only a great time to visit Europe if you are vaccinated. Several days ago France basically closed its borders to unvaccinated Americans–read more here. But it’s just as well because unvaccinated travelers wouldn’t be able to eat out or do anything anyway. I anticipate that most of Europe will be closed to unvaccinated travelers for quite some time.
Another benefit we’re finding with the health pass is that our family has peace-of-mind of knowing that most people we come in contact with are also vaccinated, and with the additional precautions of wearing masks, sanitizing our hands, and social distancing, the chance that we will get sick is very, very small.
It’s a bit of a hassle to have to show the vaccine card everywhere you go, but honestly, if “a hassle” were the only concern it would be a no-brainer considering that Covid itself has been a MUCH bigger hassle for all of us. I think one of the biggest drawbacks is that a system like this presents a myriad of potential opportunities for discrimination. Add to that the many idealogical and philosophical questions it raises surrounding the role of government and how it interacts with individual liberties, and it gets complicated really fast. It is one thing to not be able to go to the Louvre. It is another thing to not be able to go to the grocery store.
En fin . . .
Personally, I greatly prefer my experience with France’s pass sanitaire to my experience in the U.S. with universal shut downs, seeing our health care system run into the ground, and hearing ever-increasing stories of acquaintances, friends, and family getting sick and dying from Covid. But that doesn’t mean I am advocating for a vaccine passport system for my country. The idealist in me still hopes that Americans could choose to be vaccinated on their own, informed by science and data and plain old logic.
We live in an interesting time when we have to take a hard look at the ideas of individual/collective liberty alongside the ideas of individual/collective responsibility. You can’t have one without the other. I heard one guy say, “My right to swing my arms ends at your nose.” Indeed.
So, given all the options and challenges . . . what do you think? Is it time for the United States to implement a vaccine passport system? I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments.
For more about how we got to France, check out Why We Moved Our Family of 5 to a Tiny Village in France.