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International travelers set for emotional reunions as U.S. reopens its borders

America had barred air travelers from 33 countries — including China, India and much of Europe — and had also restricted overland entry from Mexico and Canada.

Loved ones kept apart for more than a year and a half were reunited Monday with tears, kisses and "welcome back" signs at New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport after the United States lifted travel restrictions imposed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"This is the best thing that's ever happened to me!" one woman shouted after getting off her British Airways flight from London's Heathrow Airport and hugging her sister who was clutching white flowers and balloons.

British Airways employees lined up to clap as travelers from the United Kingdom exited customs and made their way out of the terminal. Some of those waiting said excitedly, "They're here, they're here." Others held handwritten signs — "We missed you, two years" — including a young boy whose poster read: "Do I look bigger? 730 days. Missed you."

U.S. citizens and permanent residents have always been allowed to enter. However, the travel restrictions meant that tourists, business travelers and family members were prevented from entering.

Performers entertain travelers at London's Heathrow Airport as the U.S. reopens its borders to visitors from the United Kingdom on Monday. Steve Parsons - PA Images / PA Images via Getty Images

The travel restrictions had barred non-U.S. citizens traveling from 33 countries — including China, India and much of Europe — and had also restricted overland entry from Mexico and Canada.

To enter the U.S., foreign nationals must be fully vaccinated against Covid, though exceptions will be made for children under 18 and people who are medically unable to be vaccinated. Travelers over the age of 2 must also show a negative Covid test taken within the past three days.

Those crossing a land border from Mexico or Canada will require proof of vaccination but no test. Early Monday, traffic at many land border crossings in Canada and Mexico was already backed up.

Connor Giesbrecht drove from Winnipeg to Fargo, North Dakota, on Monday. He planned to catch a flight later in the morning to Orlando via Chicago to visit his brother at college.

"With the border opening, it makes it much easier to see him," said Giesbrecht, 21, who often drove to the U.S. to shop before the pandemic. "It saves a lot of money to drive into the U.S. versus flying internationally from Canada. The reopening makes travel so much easier." 

Following the announcement that the U.S. would reopen the borders, Virgin Atlantic saw a 600 percent increase in bookings to the U.S., the airline said in a press release. Bookings went up again by nearly 50 percent compared to the week before after the confirmation of the reopening date Oct. 15.

“It’s been an absolute nightmare that we could never have imagined.”

To mark the occasion, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic had two flights take off simultaneously for the first time from Heathrow to Kennedy Airport on Monday morning. There was a festive atmosphere at the airport with performers in red, white and blue costumes entertaining travelers.

"Today is a day of celebration," Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss said at the airport.

British Airways chief Sean Doyle agreed, and said the airline has seen enthusiasm by business travelers to get back on the road again.

"Apart from the human aspect, it's very important for business and trade that we get this corridor up and running again," he said. "The links are very strong, and travel is a key part of enabling that economic activity."

The two airlines marked the reopening on their social media accounts too, with Virgin posting a photo of a new "U.S. themed cocktail."

At Heathrow Airport, Gail and Paul Chamberlain said they looked forward to meeting their daughter's fiancé in person as they prepared to catch a flight to Los Angeles.

"I'm so joyful I could cry," Gail Chamberlain, 67, said. "I'm [going] wedding dress shopping. That I never thought I would be able to do with her."

Delta Air Lines said that in the six weeks since the U.S reopening was announced, it had seen a 450 percent increase in international bookings versus the six weeks prior to the announcement.

Sarah Solomon, who is British, headed to Sanger, near Dallas, on Monday to visit her daughter who moved to the Texas city three years ago.

"It's been an absolute nightmare that we could never have imagined," Solomon, 55, said. "We didn't know we'd be two years apart."

Cars line up to cross the border at the San Ysidro crossing on the Mexico-U.S. border in Tijuana state, Mexico, on Sunday. Guillermo Arias / AFP - Getty Images

Airlines have warned of long lines and will check vaccination documentation for international travelers as they already do for Covid test results.

"It's a real sign that people are getting back to in-person events and actually being to see each other and conduct their business in person, which is such a breath of fresh air," said Edward Langley, 34, who works for a company that runs trade shows and is making his first trip to the U.S.

Then-President Donald Trump first barred travel Jan. 31, 2020, to non-U.S. citizens who had been to China in the previous two weeks. As the pandemic spread, further restrictions on noncitizens followed in March 2020, with an initial ban on European travelers for 30 days.