By Stu Woo | Photographs by Betty Laura Zapata for The Wall Street Journal
LONDON -- Frustrated by slow and uncertain vaccination drives
around the world, some of the nine million Americans living abroad
are coming home to get their Covid-19 shots.
For many, the risks of a long journey home are worth the reward
of a vaccine that offers protection and peace of mind. But the trip
also comes with the anguish and moral ambiguity of leaving behind
friends, colleagues and even spouses who might not get access to a
shot for months because they don't hold a passport from the world's
"I've definitely seen people talk about vaccine tourism," said
Chloe Zeitounian, a 32-year-old American actor in London who
visited the U.S. earlier this month. "That's basically what I
The U.S. and U.K. are roughly on par in vaccination rates, but
recent supply disruptions have slowed Britain's rollout for younger
people. The country is also relying heavily on a shot developed by
Oxford University and AstraZeneca PLC. Regulators here have
restricted people under 30 from receiving it because of a possible
link to rare but potentially serious blood clots. Ms. Zeitounian
preferred to avoid that one, which isn't distributed in the
As she stood in line at a New Orleans convention center and
learned it was offering a dose of the two-shot vaccine from Moderna
Inc., she called her British husband in London. "Is what I'm doing
right?" asked Ms. Zeitounian, who was in the U.S. to apply for a
visa. She plans to get her second dose on a U.S. business trip
later this year unless she gets it in Britain first.
In the vaccine rollout's early days in the U.S., there were
short supplies, booking difficulties and confusion over who could
get a shot. But the U.S. drive has recently accelerated, with 38%
of adults having received at least one shot and 24% fully
A tipping point for many expats came when they saw President
Biden set April 19 as the date all adults in the U.S. would be
eligible for a shot. Reinforcing the image of widespread access was
a parade of friends back home sharing jubilant vaccine selfies on
Facebook and Instagram.
"They're getting vaccinated right and left," said Cheryl
Walling, a 61-year-old retiree in Spain, speaking of her
compatriots back in Arizona. "I'm jealous. I'm so jealous."
Ms. Walling and her husband retired to the beach town of Rota a
year ago to spend time with their daughter, their U.S. Navy-serving
son-in-law and two grandchildren. They planned to house-sit across
Since the pandemic hit, they have seldom left the house they
share with their daughter's family. "I feel like we're a burden,"
she said. "You don't want your parents living with you for a long
time." Spain has so far administered at least one dose to 19% of
As of last month, her area was inoculating only people over 70,
so Ms. Walling decided it was time to risk a three-legged flight to
get vaccinated in Tucson. They plan to depart on May 15 unless
Spain offers shots before then.
"We're in that vulnerable age group," she said. "We really need
to get vaccinated."
A spokesman for the State Department said it doesn't provide
data on overseas Americans traveling to the U.S. He said Americans
abroad should follow local and U.S. public-health guidelines when
considering options on how to get vaccinated, including Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention travel recommendations for testing
Rules on who can get shots vary by state, making it difficult to
say for sure whether an American traveling back can get one easily
just by landing. Many countries, meanwhile, restrict foreign
travel. England, for example, forbids international vacations but
allows residents to travel abroad with a reasonable excuse, such as
business trips and funerals.
Some Americans are also hesitant to return to the U.S. to get
vaccinated because that might complicate their receiving "vaccine
passports" in their residence countries that could be required for
entry into restaurants or for travel.
On Facebook groups for American expats, people trade advice on
navigating the local and American requirements for traveling to the
U.S., as well as tips for booking vaccinations. The appointment
website for CVS Health Corp., the big pharmaceutical chain offering
vaccines, doesn't work outside the U.S., for example, and some
regions require a local identification card. Others require
In suburban Tokyo, Kat Callahan was fed up with the glacial
vaccination pace in Japan, where about 1% of the population has
gotten a dose. The 37-year-old civics teacher and union organizer
has underlying health conditions and felt increasingly
uncomfortable about taking progressively crowded trains into the
city for meetings that had to be held in person. "I don't feel
comfortable going out," she said.
Then she saw that New Mexico, where she maintains legal
residency, was a vaccination leader. She checked that appointments
were plentiful, and booked a five-week trip to Albuquerque that
starts later this month. "New Mexico got their stuff together, and
I knew I wouldn't be burdening any fellow Americans," she said.
"There is a shot with my name on it."
In Berlin, Lucas Mathis booked a flight next month to see his
parents in Oklahoma City. He plans to get fully vaccinated while
he's there. Germany, which has given at least one dose to 18% of
its population, shows no signs of easing lockdown measures. His
daily routine of isolation and meandering walks was driving him
"The idea of going out to eat on a restaurant's patio and having
tacos with my parents sounds like a trip to Disneyland at this
point," said the 33-year-old computer programmer. "I feel like I
might cry when it happens."
Getting vaccinated in Oklahoma would ease his mind upon
returning to Germany, he said, knowing he was less likely to get
ill or spread disease when grocery shopping. His friends support
his decision, as does his Canadian wife, whose home country has a
22% vaccination rate.
Mr. Mathis is still uneasy. "It's going to be kind of weird to
be the only person in my friend group here with a vaccine once I
return," he said.
Dr. Robert Truog, director of the Center for Bioethics at
Harvard Medical School, said expats shouldn't torture themselves,
as long as they don't break any rules for traveling and
vaccinations. One analogy he cites: Many registered nurses felt
guilty for getting vaccinated early, even though they weren't
dealing with patients and weren't technically on the front line of
"For you to feel guilty about this I think is wrong," he said.
"You should be proud that you're following the rules."
On a Facebook group for Americans in London, Matt Heligman
shared his experience of getting his first dose in the U.S. earlier
this month. "I don't get a lot of thanks for that because a lot of
people just criticize me for traveling," said Mr. Heligman, the
39-year-old chief operating officer of an interior-design company.
"Some people might say it's jumping the queue."
Mr. Heligman disagrees. His job requires frequent travel between
the U.K. and U.S., and appointments for both the first and second
dose, which he'll get when he returns to the U.S. later this month,
happened to line up with business trips. He said getting inoculated
helps protect the people he encounters while traveling, while also
"That's two doses I'm taking that [England's National Health
Service] doesn't have to administer," he said.
Write to Stu Woo at Stu.Woo@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
April 17, 2021 05:44 ET (09:44 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.