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State Department Expands Exceptions to Regional COVID Travel Bans to Include Immigrant and Fiancé(e) Travelers and Certain Exchange Visitors

On April 8, the State Department updated its policy on categories of visa applicants eligible for national interest exceptions (NIE) from the regional COVID-19 travel bans in effect for Brazil, China, Iran, Ireland, the Schengen Area, South Africa, and the United Kingdom (Presidential Proclamations 9984, 9992 and 10143). Under the new policy, those traveling on immigrant and fiancé(e) visas, as well as certain exchange visitors and pilots and aircrew are now categorically approved for NIEs.

Background on regional COVID-19 travel bans and NIEs

The COVID-19 regional public health bans restrict travel for foreign nationals who have been physically present in an identified country within 14 days of seeking entry to the United States and who do not qualify for a ban exception. Transit through an airport in an affected country counts as presence in that country. Certain categories of individuals are not subject to or are explicitly exempt from the bans, including U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents (green card holders) and their immediate family members, among others. In addition, certain foreign nationals may be eligible for a discretionary waiver, called a national interest exception (NIE).

Initially, NIE eligibility under the regional COVID-19 bans was limited primarily to travel for humanitarian or COVID-related work or circumstances. Additional exceptions were put in place for the Ireland, Schengen Area and United Kingdom bans only, qualifying certain F-1 and M-1 students; academics, J-1 students and journalists; and certain critical business and work travelers traveling from those countries. Unlike the European NIE policy, the exceptions announced today are available to foreign nationals subject to any of the regional COVID proclamations. Travelers from Ireland, the Schengen Area and the United Kingdom will still retain their broader categories of eligibility for an NIE.

Once an NIE is obtained, the foreign national must travel to the United States within the 30-day NIE validity (only for single entry to the United States). Those who require an NIE to overcome a regional ban must obtain the approved NIE even if they already have a valid visa in their passport (with the exception of F and M students subject to the Ireland, Schengen and U.K. bans).

Expanded national interest exception categories

The following categories of foreign travelers will now be considered eligible for an NIE under any of the regional COVID travel bans.

Immigrants and fiancé(e)s

Foreign nationals may be issued immigrant and fiancé(e) visas if otherwise eligible, notwithstanding the regional bans. However, reduced capacity and operations and steep application backlogs at most U.S. consular posts could mean delays in appointments and in visa issuance.

Certain exchange visitors

NIEs may now be approved for the following categories of travel by certain exchange visitors.

  • Travel by an au pair:
    • To provide care for a minor U.S. citizen, LPR, or nonimmigrant where the au pair possesses special skills required for a child with particular needs (e.g., medical, special education, or sign language);
    • That prevents a U.S. citizen, lawful permanent resident, or nonimmigrant from becoming a public health charge or ward of the state or of a public-funded institution; or
    • To provide childcare services for a child whose parents are involved with the provision of medical care to individuals with COVID-19 or with medical research at U.S. facilities to help combat COVID-19.
  • Travel for an exchange program conducted pursuant to a Memorandum of Understanding, Statement of Intent, or other valid agreement in effect prior to June 24, 2020, between a foreign government and any federal, state, or local government entity in the United States that is designed to promote U.S. national interests.
  • Travel by J-1 Interns and Trainees on U.S. government agency-sponsored programs (those with a program number beginning with “G-3” on Form DS-2019) that support the immediate and continued economic recovery of the United States.
  • Travel by J-1 Specialized Teachers in Accredited Educational Institutions with a program number beginning with “G-5” on Form DS-2019. The exchange visitor will teach full-time, including a substantial portion that is in person, in a primary or secondary accredited educational institution where the applicant demonstrates ability to make a specialized contribution. 
  • Travel in support of critical foreign policy objectives. This category only includes exchange visitors participating in a small number of exchange programs that satisfy critical and time sensitive foreign policy objectives.

Pilots and air crew traveling for training and aircraft pickup, delivery, or maintenance

NIEs under the regional COVID bans may now be approved for travel by pilots and aircrew for training or aircraft pickup, delivery, or maintenance. This includes individuals who are traveling to the United States for training or aircraft pickup, delivery, or maintenance on B-1/B-2, B-1, or M-1 visas, or under the Visa Waiver program. The NIE also covers certain M-2 dependents where the principal’s necessary training is four weeks or more. 

What the new policy means for affected foreign nationals

A greater number of foreign nationals will be eligible for NIEs under the new State Department policy. However, reduced capacity and steep visa application backlogs at most U.S. consular posts are likely to continue to delay visa appointments and travel. All visa applications are prioritized by consular posts in accordance with the agency’s guidance on their phased resumption of visa services. Specifically, the State Department prioritizes U.S. citizen services first, followed by immigrant visa processing, and then nonimmigrant visa processing. In addition, visa appointments can be at risk of cancellation due to local COVID and staffing conditions. Foreign nationals are advised to plan travel with some flexibility in the context of the ongoing COVID emergency as changes to consular operations and travel restrictions may occur with little or no notice.

As a reminder, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requires a negative COVID test or evidence of recent COVID recovery for any international air travel to the United States.

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