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FAQ: INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL AMIDST COVID-19 PANDEMIC

FAQ: INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL AMIDST COVID-19 PANDEMIC

These materials are provided solely for informational purposes and are not legal advice. Transmission of these materials is not intended to create, and receipt does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. Readers should not act upon the information contained in this FAQ without first seeking advice from a qualified attorney. 

(Updated as of September 21, 2021)

International travel has been heavily impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Since March of 2020, foreign national travelers seeking visa stamps from U.S. Consulates abroad and admission to the U.S. have faced multiple barriers and ever-changing restrictions. Given how quickly the rules can change, please consult our website and specific U.S. Consulate sites for the most up to date information and processes for visa stamp acquisition and reentry.

Please also note that the level of services offered at worldwide U.S. Consulates, regardless of any applicable travel bans or restrictions, will greatly vary depending on the post, its available resources, and any relevant COVID-19 restrictions it and the host country have implemented. U.S. Consulates abroad are woefully understaffed and demand for services is high. As a result, even where specific travel or visa issuance restrictions do not apply, Consulates may be closed, scheduled appointments may be delayed or cancelled, and visa issuance could be stalled for lengthy periods.

Given shifting political and COVID-related concerns, we recommend against non-emergency international travel until further notice. Please note that the below FAQ only covers restrictions related to travel into the United States but does not cover COVID-related complications regarding entry to other countries globally.

Q: What is entailed in the recent Biden Administration announcement to discontinue country-specific travel bans in favor of a vaccination requirement?

A: The Biden Administration announced on September 20, 2021 that it will rescind the current geographic COVID-19-related travel bans impacting foreign national travelers who have been physically present in China, Iran, the Schengen Area, U.K., Ireland, Brazil, South Africa, and India. Instead, all foreign national travelers will be required to show proof they have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 prior to boarding a plane to the U.S. The current requirement for all travelers to show proof of a negative test taken within 3 days of boarding a flight will remain in place for all fully vaccinated travelers.

 Q: Under the new requirement that all foreign national travelers present proof of vaccination before boarding a flight to the U.S., which COVID-19 vaccines are deemed acceptable? 

A: Details on which vaccines will be acceptable remain pending. Some sources report that the U.S. will accept full vaccination of travelers with any COVID-19 vaccine approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization, including those from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson used in the U.S. Other vaccines are also approved by the WHO and used widely around the world, including from AstraZeneca and China’s Sinovac, with varying degrees of effectiveness against COVID-19 and its more transmissible delta variant. The WHO is reviewing Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine but has not approved it.

Q: What proof of vaccination status will be acceptable?

A: Proof will be required before boarding, and the type of proof required will be worked out as the detailed implementation plan is developed prior to November.

Q: Are there any exceptions to the new Biden Administration requirement that all foreign national travelers must show proof of vaccination?

A: The Administration has announced limited exceptions to the COVID-19 vaccination requirement, such as for children; COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial participants; and humanitarian exceptions for people traveling for an important reason and who lack access to vaccination in a timely manner will be available. Individuals who are exempted from the vaccine requirement may be required to be vaccinated upon arrival. The White House did not immediately say whether unvaccinated children will face different testing protocols when flying into the U.S.

Q: Should I be aware of any other travel requirements in addition to showing proof of vaccination?

The administration will make additional recommendations to stop the spread of COVID-19, including 1) continuing the mask mandate through January 18, 2022; 2) expanding pre-departure and post-arrival testing requirements; and 3) implanting a contact tracing order for airlines. The Contact Tracing Order will require airlines to collect comprehensive contact information for every passenger coming to the United States and to provide that information promptly to CDC upon request, and to follow up with travelers who have been exposed to COVID-19 variants or other pathogens.

 Q: What about unvaccinated U.S. Citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents?

U.S. Citizens and permanent residents (green card holders) who are not fully vaccinated will still be able to fly to the US, but they will see tougher testing and contact tracing protocols. They will need to be tested within 24 hours of boarding a flight to the US, as well as undergo testing upon return to the country.

Q: Will the current policy prohibiting “non-essential” travel through land borders from Mexico and Canada remain in effect?

A: Yes, this policy is being extended for another month through October 21, 2021. Please note that entering the U.S. to perform work for a U.S. company is typically considered “essential travel,” but please confer with Weaver Schlenger or your immigration attorney with specific questions.

 

**Please see below for FAQs regarding country-specific travel bans that will remain in place until early November 2021**

 

Q: I have a valid visa stamp in my passport and I would like to travel home for a visit and return to the United States. What should I do?

A: Different rules apply depending on visa type, familial relationships to U.S. citizens, and country visited. Further, travel bans are currently in effect for those returning from China, Iran, Schengen Area countries, Ireland, U.K, Brazil, South Africa, and India within the immediately preceding 14 days before their arrival in the United States.

In any event, our office strongly recommends against any non-emergent travel at this time.

Q: I have a valid visa stamp in my passport and have the emergent need to travel to one of the countries impacted by the U.S. travel ban. What should I do?

A: Please keep in mind that international travel is fraught even with a valid visa stamp; rules can change quickly and without notice. If you have a valid visa stamp in your passport and you are seeking to travel to one of the countries subject to a travel restriction, which include China, Iran, Schengen Area countries, Ireland, U.K, Brazil, South Africa, and India, you may be able to quarantine in a non-restricted country for a period of 14 days (e.g., Mexico, Turkey, Croatia), show proof of a negative COVID test, and reenter the United States. We advise our clients to purchase their return flight into the United States only once the full 14-day quarantine period has expired. Please note that this process carries risk as policies can change and countries can be added to the travel ban list quickly and without any notice.

Q: I have the emergent need to travel, the visa stamp in my passport has expired, but I may qualify for an automatic visa renewal without making an interview appointment at a U.S. Consulate or Embassy abroad. Can I travel and what is the process?
A: As of March 11, 2021, the Department of State temporarily expanded the ability of consular officers to waive the in-person interview requirement for individuals applying for a nonimmigrant visa in the same classification. This extended policy will remain in effect until December 31, 2021. Individuals with visa stamps that have expired within the last 48 months may be eligible to apply for visa stamp renewals without appearing for a Consular interview. Please note that this policy varies by Consulate and visa type (for example, the London Embassy only offers an interview waiver for a very restricted number of visa types). Further, each Consulate maintains the right to call individual applicants for interviews even if they appear to qualify for a waiver. Please check the information available on the specific Consulate’s website for more information about whether the waiver is available and the current process for such an application.

 Q: I have the emergent need to travel, the visa stamp in my passport has expired or I need to travel to a country from which travel is restricted, but I may qualify for one of the narrow “National Interest Exceptions” to current restrictions. What are the current National Interest Exceptions and how do I determine the process for applying?
A: A very narrow group of international travelers may qualify for an exception to the current bans against travel and visa issuance if their entry would be “in the national interest.” The list of National Interest Exceptions applies to travelers who will:

  • Provide vital support or executive direction for critical infrastructure;
  • Provide vital support or executive direction for significant economic activity in the United States (note that “significant economic activity” has not been defined);
  • Promote public health, national security, or who will travel for extraordinary humanitarian reasons, including au pairs coming to care for children whose parents are involved in the direct treatment of COVID-19 patients;
  • Journalists;
  • Students (F-1 & M-1 visas)[1] and certain academics covered by exchange visitor programs (J-1 visas);
  • Immigrants; and
  • Those with Fiancé visas.

On June 29, 2021, the Department of State extended the validity of National Interest Exceptions (NIE) for travelers subject to restrictions under the travel bans. Unless otherwise indicated, existing NIEs will be valid for 12 months from the date of approval and for multiple entries, as long as they are used for the purpose under which they were granted.

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Additional considerations:

  • This list has evolved multiple times since enactment of the travel bans in March 2020 and travelers should check WSM LLP or specific Consulate websites for any updates to this list.
  • Those seeking to obtain a visa stamp from a U.S. Consulate abroad from one of the banned countries must make a showing of both an emergent need for travel as well as a demonstration that the traveler meets one of the narrow National Interest Exception categories.
  • There is no way to learn whether you will qualify for the NIE in advance of international travel.
  • Even where someone has successfully made a visa appointment, these appointments are frequently cancelled or delayed. If this happens, we recommend rescheduling for the next earliest appointment date, and where warranted and eligible, reapply for the expedited visa appointment in accordance with the post’s procedures.

 Note that as of May 2021, the following NIE categories were rescinded: 1. Technical experts and specialists; 2. Senior-level managers and executives; 3. Treaty traders and investors; 4. Professional athletes and dependents;

*If you believe you may qualify for an NIE, please contact our office for more information.*

Q: Are there any individuals for whom the travel and visa issuance restrictions do not apply?

A: The aforementioned restrictions and travel bans do not apply to the following group of individuals:

  • U.S. citizens;
  • Lawful Permanent Residents;
  • Spouses and children of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents;
  • Parents or legal guardians of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident unmarried minor child;
  • Siblings of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident child, provided both are unmarried and under the age of 21;
  • Air and sea crewmembers;
  • Diplomats;
  • Any noncitizen who is a member of the U.S. Armed Forces and any noncitizen who is a spouse or child of a member of the U.S. Armed Forces;
  • Certain U.S. Government invitees for the purpose of the containment or mitigation of COVID-19; and
  • Those whose entry would be in the national interest, as determined by the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or their designees (see above NIE discussion).

 Q: I have a qualifying relative allowing me to travel to the U.S. without an NIE but my relative will not be physically present with me when I make my reentry to the U.S. What do I do?

A: We have heard reports of individuals who have successfully obtained visa stamps and traveled from restricted countries without the physical presence of their qualifying relatives. These travelers should carry proof of their qualifying relative’s immigration status (i.e., U.S. passport) as well as proof of the familial relationship (i.e., birth certificate). Please note that it is possible that by traveling without a qualifying relative the individual will be refused a visa stamp or entry to the U.S.

 Q: What if I am fully vaccinated? Will this impact whether I can reenter the U.S.?

A: Currently, there are no exceptions made for fully vaccinated travelers.

 Q: Is a negative COVID test required for entry to the U.S. after foreign travel?

A: Yes. Since January 26, 2021, all air passengers arriving to the US from a foreign country are required to get tested no more than 3 days before their flight departs and to provide proof of the negative result or documentation of having recovered from COVID-19 to the airline before boarding the flight. This requirement stands regardless of whether one has been vaccinated.

Q: Are there any other factors I should consider when thinking about international travel?

A: Yes, if you are planning to file an Adjustment of Status application (I-485) or you are working with your employer to file a change or extension of non-immigrant status (for example, H-1b), you should avoid any international travel and consult with an attorney regarding the implications.

 

[1]Please note that "new or returning students present in China, Brazil, Iran, South Africa, or India may arrive no earlier than 30 days before the start of an academic program beginning August 1, 2021 or after, including optional practical training (OPT)." It is possible that this rule also applies to students returning from Schengen Area, United Kingdom, or Ireland.

 

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