COVID-19 travel restrictions

COVID-19 and international travel issues

Written by William R. Hummel, Esq., Partner, N.C. Board Certified Immigration Law Specialist.

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically impacted travel across the globe.

There have been more than 46 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide as of November 2, including at least 9 million cases in the United States, according to the World Health Organization. Travel limitations have been put in place across numerous countries in an attempt to stop the spread of the outbreak.

Foreign nationals who are considering traveling internationally, particularly with the upcoming holidays, should consider and understand the restrictions and limitations currently in place that could impact potential travel plans, both in the United States and abroad.

U.S. COVID-19 travel bans

The Trump administration has issued multiple presidential proclamations throughout the pandemic restricting travel to the United States.

In February 2020, Trump suspended entry of foreign nationals who had visited China or Iran in the 14-day period before traveling to the U.S.

In March 2020, the administration implemented a similar ban for foreign nationals who had been physically present in Europe’s “Schengen Area.” Those countries include: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

The United Kingdom, Ireland and Brazil were later added to that list, as well.

These travel bans and restrictions remain in effect as of November 2020 and are likely to stay in place through at least the end of the year, with the possibility of longer extensions.


The proclamations put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic do not apply to (among others):

  • U.S. citizens
  • Lawful permanent residents of the U.S.
  • A spouse of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident
  • A parent or legal guardian of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident who is unmarried and younger than 21 years old
  • A sibling of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, as long as both are unmarried and younger than 21 years old
  • U.S. armed forces members, their spouses and children

The proclamations also include multiple exemptions and exceptions. Specifically:

  • Exceptions for some business travelers, investors, treaty traders, academics, students and journalists traveling from the Schengen Area, United Kingdom and Ireland to the United States
  • Exceptions for students with valid F-1 and M-1 visas traveling from the Schengen Area, United Kingdom and Ireland to the United States
  • Exceptions for humanitarian travel, public health response and national security for travelers from the Schengen Area, United Kingdom and Ireland to the United States
  • Exceptions for professional athletes, their “staff” and dependents traveling from China, Iran, the Schengen Area, the United Kingdom and Ireland to the United States

The procedures and timelines for securing an exception, including a national interest exception, vary depending on the U.S. Consulate. Individuals seeking to re-enter the United States and/or receive a national interest exception should consider consulting with experienced immigration counsel to discuss strategies and eligibility.

Quarantine rules

In some circumstances, those impacted by the previously mentioned travel bans who do not qualify for an exemption can still travel to the United States by quarantining in a non-subjected third country for at least 14 days.

For example, a foreign national seeking to enter the United States who has been in Brazil can leave Brazil and spend 14 or more days in a country not included in one of the presidential proclamations banning travel to the United States.

That foreign national could then travel to and enter the United States directly following that 14-day quarantine period.

Circumstances vary from person to person in important detail. Please contact Garfinkel Immigration Law Firm for advice specific to individual circumstances.

Travel to Canada and Mexico

The United States originally closed its land borders with Canada and Mexico for “non-essential travel” in mid-March to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Those measures have been extended multiple times throughout the year, most recently in mid-October.

“Non-essential travel” is defined as any travel related to tourism or recreation. Supply chains between the countries have not been affected.

Individuals who cross the land borders for “essential work or for other urgent or essential reasons” have also not been impacted by the restrictions, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Air travel from the United States to both Canada and Mexico may still be possible under certain circumstances.

Lifting of airport restrictions

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) eliminated the previously required public health screenings in mid-September for individuals who had recently traveled from or were present in the countries specified in the COVID-19 related travel bans.

Instead, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will implement “mitigation efforts that focus on the individual passenger,” which include:

  • Pre-departure, in-flight and post-arrival health education
  • Robust illness response at airports
  • Voluntary collection of contact information using electronic means to “avoid long lines, crowding and delays associated with manual data collection”
  • Potential testing to reduce the risk of travel-related transmission of COVID-19
  • Country-specific risk assessments
  • Post-arrival recommendations for self-monitoring and precautions

These measures are “consistent with the current phase of the pandemic” and more effectively protect “the health of the American public,” the CDC wrote in a press release.

DHS also removed the requirement that those who had recently traveled from or were present in the countries specified in the COVID-19 related travel bans enter the country at one of 15 designated airports. Previously impacted individuals can now arrive at any international airport in the United States.

Traveling abroad and returning to the United States: Issues and concerns

While some nations eased restrictions over the last few months, traveling outside of the United States for most purposes remains complicated because of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, as many countries still have their own specific limitations and requirements for entry in place.

For example, as of late October:

  • Most nations in the Schengen Area have suspended entry of individuals from outside the 26-country region. Travel within the Schengen Area countries is permitted. Some exceptions and exemptions apply. Some Schengen Area nations have also implemented further travel restrictions.
  • Japan has suspended all entry, except for returning citizens and permanent residents. There are some exceptions available for individuals traveling for business.
  • An individual can travel to the Dominican Republic only if they have tested negative for COVID-19 within five days prior to entry.
  • China has suspended entry of all foreign nationals, with very limited exceptions available.
  • Morocco has suspended all entry, except for citizens, permanent residents and visa-exempt travelers.

More information about country-specific travel restrictions and limitations can be found here. 

Meanwhile, the federal government of the United States has not instituted a national quarantine requirement for those entering or returning from abroad. However, each of the 50 states could have their own restrictions and mandates.

For instance, the state of New York requires that all “travelers entering the United States from any country with a CDC Level 2 or Level 3 health notice … quarantine for a period of 14 days.” Multiple other states have similar orders.


The restrictions, orders and bans in place both worldwide and in the United States are constantly changing and evolving because of the COVID-19 outbreak across the globe.

Individuals considering traveling abroad and/or returning to the United States may want to consult with experienced immigration counsel before finalizing specific plans.

As always, please do not hesitate to contact Garfinkel Immigration Law Firm at 704-442-8000 or via email with any questions.

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