Peer reviewed: True / The effectiveness of international border control measures during the COVID-19 pandemic is not well understood. Using a narrative synthesis approach to published systematic reviews, we synthesized the evidence from both modelling and observational studies on the effects of border control measures on domestic transmission of the virus. We find that symptomatic screening measures were not particularly effective, but that diagnostic-based screening methods were more effective at identifying infected travellers. Targeted travel restrictions levied against travellers from Wuhan were likely temporarily effective but insufficient to stop the exportation of the virus to the rest of the world. Quarantine of inbound travellers was also likely effective at reducing transmission, but only with relatively long quarantine periods, and came with important economic and social effects. There is little evidence that most travel restrictions, including border closure and those implemented to stop the introduction of new variants of concern, were particularly effective. Border control measures played an important role in former elimination locations but only when coupled with strong domestic public health measures. In future outbreaks, if border control measures are to be adopted, they should be seen as part of a broader strategy that includes other non-pharmaceutical interventions. This article is part of the theme issue 'The effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions on the COVID-19 pandemic: the evidence'.