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White House To Replace Regional COVID Travel Bans with Vaccination Requirement for All Foreign Nationals

The White House announced today that, starting in early November 2021, it will rescind the existing regional COVID-19 travel bans and instead implement a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for foreign national international air travel. With the rescission of the bans affecting foreign nationals recently present in Brazil, China, India, Iran, Ireland, the Schengen Area, South Africa, or the United Kingdom, many foreign nationals will no longer be subject to the complex, ever-changing policies and processes around national interest exceptions (NIEs) to the bans. The move represents a Biden Administration policy shift from imposing restrictions on travel from specific regions of the world, to imposing requirements on the individual air traveler coming from any part of the world. 

The new vaccine requirement will be in addition to – not instead of – the existing COVID test requirements for international air travelers. These travelers must already provide either a negative COVID test taken within 3 days, or documentation of recent COVID recovery, in order to board a flight bound for the United States. Further, ongoing consular backlogs and reduced resources at U.S. consulates worldwide persist, which will continue to impact and potentially delay foreign nationals who require a new visa to return to the United States.

The White House has not yet released an official policy document regarding the new vaccination policy, but has provided some details to press outlets and immigration advocacy groups, as detailed below.

A closer look

Starting in early November, foreign nationals will be required to provide proof that they have received full COVID vaccination in order to board a flight to the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will provide implementation details on which vaccines will be accepted.

Limited exceptions are expected for children, COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial participants, and those traveling for an important reason who lack access to vaccination in a timely manner. However, these excepted travelers – including U.S. citizens – will be required to provide proof of a negative test taken within one day of their flight, and provide proof that they have purchased a viral test to be taken after their arrival in the United States, in order to board the aircraft.

The new policy is also expected to include a contact tracing mechanism for airlines to implement with respect to their passengers.

What the new policy means for travelers

For foreign nationals not currently subject to any of the existing travel bans, the forthcoming policy adds an additional requirement to international travel; these individuals will need to provide proof of vaccination in addition to COVID testing. 

Once the new policy takes effect, foreign nationals currently subject to any of the regional COVID travel bans, however, should see some easing of restrictions, depending on their circumstances:

  • Foreign nationals traveling under the Visa Waiver Program or existing valid visa stamps: Vaccinated individuals traveling with a Visa Waver Program ESTA approval or on existing valid visas will not need to seek government approval of a national interest exception (NIE) to a regional COVID travel ban prior to travel. With proof of vaccination and testing, these foreign nationals will be permitted to travel using their valid documents. (F and M student visa holders subject to the travel bans already receive automatic NIEs and do not require advance approval before travel.)
  • Foreign nationals who require a visa to travel: Those who require a new visa and would normally be subject to a travel ban will not need to seek an NIE in connection with their visa application, starting in early November. However, consular backlogs, delays and reduced operations persist worldwide and could worsen as more individuals seek visas after the new policy is implemented. These foreign nationals may still face difficulty obtaining a visa appointment if consular operations are limited in their area due to local COVID conditions.

Until the new policy takes effect, those traveling from a country subject to a COVID-19 travel ban remain subject to the NIE requirement, unless otherwise exempt.

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