Country entry COVID apps struggles

By Laurel Glassman
This item appears on page 10 of the March 2022 issue.

During three months of heavy travel in late 2021, I experienced difficulties when it came to the COVID-19 testing, tracing and reporting requirements imposed by multiple countries. Here are some choice examples of what a nightmare it was to comply with a few countries’ COVID-entry requirements.

The Kingdom of SAUDI ARABIA required visitors to download an app called Tawakkalna. The app, which also acts as a COVID-contact tracer, provided a QR code that had to be shown when entering airports, museums, restaurants, etc. As instructed, I dutifully downloaded the app to my iPhone prior to my departure for Riyadh, from which I flew to Jeddah for the start of my tour.

When I and seven other members of our 16-person tour group tried to register on the app at the Jeddah airport on Nov. 9 for our domestic flight to Abha in the far southwest, we were unsuccessful. We submitted all of the required information and were each supposed to receive a QR code via text to enter on a webpage in order to complete our registrations. Try as we might, we could not receive the code.*

Our local guide was somehow able to get us boarding passes for the Abha flight without our having functioning Tawakkalna apps, but he nevertheless took us, our boarding passes in hand, to the “STi” kiosk/help desk in a different part of the airport to fix the problem.

The only way seven of the eight of us were able to get the app to function was to each purchase a Saudi SIM card (about $20), and for one person the only solution was to buy a new smartphone a few days later in Abha.

The app instructed users to leave their phones on at all times and allow roaming 24/7, which worried us because there was no way to know whether any of us would be charged for the roaming service during our 12-day stay. (It turned out I was not charged roaming fees.)

On a trip extension, on Nov. 18 I traveled on my own to BAHRAIN, which required visitors to download an app prior to arrival called BeAware Bahrain, then register on the app upon arrival.

Bahrain also required visitors to get a COVID PCR test upon arrival, and testing required the BeAware Bahrain app to function. After providing all the information on an online form upon arrival, I was unable to register. The intake representative I was assigned to tried valiantly to get the registration to work but to no avail.

The only reason I was able to complete the process was because I happened to have a second iPhone with me (that I use solely to take photos). It did not have a SIM card in it. For whatever reason, after working on my SIM-less iPhone for about 10 minutes, the rep was able to register me on the app.

I then had to go to a separate kiosk and pay for my PCR test, after which I brought the payment receipt back to the rep. She printed out some labels and sent me to another area for my PCR test. I handed the tester the labels, and he placed one on the tube holding my sample and another on a document. He handed me the third label, which I had to show on my way to claim my luggage before meeting my guide and our driver.

This entire process took an hour.

In December 2021, the following were TUNISIA’s COVID requirements for visitors from the US: (1) obtain online, print out and present at the airport upon arrival in Tunisia a completed Travel Health Certificate, (2) obtain a negative PCR test with a QR code no more than 72 hours prior to departure and (3) have proof of vaccination.

• The travel company that put together my solo trip to Tunisia provided a link in an email to the Travel Health Certificate. I tried to fill out the form, but many of the questions were difficult to answer.

For example, since I was leaving for Tunis from Frankfurt (on a separate ticket), what was the correct answer to the question “Departure country”? One question had only a single word: “Cohorting?” The form also required me to provide a phone number, but the only country code allowed was Tunisia’s.

The form required me to sign a separate form titled “Engagement,” which was entirely in French. I filled out the form multiple times, providing different answers to the questions each time based on my best guesses. Each time I submitted the form, I received an email with all the answers printed out as well as a QR code printed at the top. I took all of the forms with me on my trip.

• Regarding a PCR test with a QR code, I spent many hours trying to find a testing facility in the Washington, DC, metro area that would provide that, but the nearest one was 3½ hours from my house.

I contacted the owner of my travel company, and he assured me that while it was best if the PCR test results had a QR code, it was not required. He stated that his company had sent a number of guests to Tunisia recently and none of them had had to present that. On that basis, I went to the testing facility I normally use and got my PCR test showing a negative result (but without a QR code).

I was traveling on an afternoon Dec. 9 flight on United Airlines from Washington Dulles to Frankfurt, arriving the following morning and then connecting (on a separate ticket) to a Lufthansa flight to Tunis a few hours later. The check-in agent for United looked at all my documents and gave me my boarding pass.

In Frankfurt, when I tried to board my flight to Tunis, I was denied boarding by the Lufthansa gate agent because my PCR test did not have a QR code. I went to the Lufthansa Service Center, where the agent told me the only thing she could do was rebook me on the same flight the following day, which she did at my request. (Also at my request, she had my suitcase taken off the Tunis flight. Retrieving it took four hours.)

I then spent considerable time, both within and outside the airport, inquiring about and looking for a testing facility that was open and charged a reasonable fee and would provide a PCR test with a QR code within the time frame I needed. I was about to give up when I saw a sign for (yet another) testing facility, so I followed the signs for “CentoGene” across a “skybridge” from Terminal 1 to a separate building and down a long hallway.

In my view, CentoGene is the COVID-testing facility to go to at the Frankfurt airport. It occupies a huge space, and I found the agents to be extremely knowledgeable and helpful and the whole operation well organized and efficient.

They offered PCR tests with QR codes with results in 35 minutes (279), 75 minutes (199), three hours (129, or near $146) and 24 hours (69). I opted for the 3-hour results. Checking in, paying and getting tested took about 35 minutes, and I received a notification on my phone that my results were ready in slightly less than three hours.

I had checked into the airport Marriott (conveniently located next door to CentoGene) for my forced overnight stay, so picking up the results was not a problem, and CentoGene printed out the results for me (two copies).

After dropping off my suitcase with Lufthansa for my flight from Frankfurt to Tunis, I headed for my gate. Before I even got there, a Lufthansa agent checked to see if I had the Travel Health Certificate, made sure I had a QR code on my PCR test results (though he did not scan it) and, of course, checked my passport and my CDC vaccination card. I had to present all the documents again at the departure gate.

When I arrived — finally! — in Tunis on Dec. 11, I was required to present the Travel Health Certificate, my vaccination card, my PCR test with the QR code and my passport. The agent didn’t scan the QR code on either the Travel Health Certificate or the PCR test results. I was not asked about my answers to any of the questions on the Travel Health Certificate.

Despite the problems I had pertaining to COVID testing and documentation for my trips to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Tunisia (and perhaps due to the triumph of hope over experience), I’m scheduled to take multiple trips outside the US in 2022.

Chevy Chase, MD

*In order to submit information or send and receive texts on a phone, it must have a data connection, such as on a cell phone network or over Wi-Fi. If a country requires that a visitor use an app that must send and receive data in order to enter the country or that he/she must download an app while in the country, the phone must be connected to a data source for that app to work.

To keep users from incurring roaming charges, which can be very expensive, most US cell phone service providers will not allow users to connect to foreign networks by default. To be able to use one of the required apps as mentioned above, a traveler can connect to a local Wi-Fi network, turn on roaming on his/her phone and risk expensive roaming charges or, to avoid roaming charges, he/she can buy a SIM card or phone that will connect to a local network.