Written by Nam Douglass, Esq., Senior Associate Attorney, N.C. Board Certified Immigration Law Specialist.
The November 8, 2021 lifting of the strict COVID-19 related travel restrictions to the U.S. implemented in early 2020 affords new opportunities for international travel.
Families have the opportunity to reunite after more than a year apart and those stuck abroad can now make plans to enter or return to the United States. However, when planning international travel, it is important to remember that several restrictions and requirements remain in place.
Unfortunately, a recent surge in the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has resulted in limited, new restrictions. Starting November 29, 2021, entry into the U.S. is restricted for non-U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents traveling from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The full proclamation with all the exceptions is available here.
To assist you with this constantly changing landscape, Garfinkel Immigration Law Firm offers the following information and tips to keep in mind before commencing holiday international travel plans.
Implementation of travel restrictions
In March 2020, former President Donald Trump suspended the entry of foreign nationals who had been physically present in more than 30 countries in the 14-day period prior to traveling to the U.S., in efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The U.S. land borders with both Canada and Mexico were also closed for “nonessential travel” from March 2020 through October 2021.
Those restrictions were extended multiple times with several other nations added to the initial list of impacted countries as a result of the changing COVID landscape and remained in place until November 2021, when President Biden’s new policy focused on resuming safe travels and vaccination requirements took effect.
“(The administration created) working groups that were both interagency and working with a range of countries and partners in the world to determine what the most equitable and clear policies should be, moving forward, to resume broader international travel.” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at a press conference in late September. “Obviously, this is the conclusion of a policy process on that particular issue — an important one facing many people around the world.”
Lifting of travel restrictions
The Biden administration announced in late September its intent to lift restrictions for fully vaccinated travelers and released the formal proclamation the following month. The new measure officially took effect on Nov. 8, 2021
“(I) hereby find that it is in the interests of the United States to advance the resumption of international travel to the United States, provided necessary health and safety protocols are in place to protect against the further introduction, transmission, and spread of COVID-19 into and throughout the United States,” Biden wrote in the proclamation. “I further find that vaccination requirements are essential to advance the safe resumption of international travel to the United States.”
The new policy applies to the “entry into the United States by air travel of noncitizens who are nonimmigrants and who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19.” The measure “does not affect visa issuance,” according the text of the proclamation.
International travelers seeking to enter the United States are considered “fully vaccinated” two weeks after receiving the recommended dose(s) of vaccines that are approved/authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or listed for emergency use by the World Health Organization (WHO), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
As of December 7, those vaccines include:
- FDA authorized/approved: Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer-BioNTech
- WHO approved: Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca/Covishield, Sinopharm and Sinovac
The new policy applies to all air travelers seeking to enter the United States with limited exemptions and exceptions as noted below.
Exemptions to the proclamation
The limited exemptions to the proclamation issued by the Biden administration include:
- Noncitizens seeking entry as crew members of an airline or other aircraft operator, in adherence with “all industry standard protocols for the prevention of COVID-19”
- Noncitizens who are prevented from receiving a vaccine for medical reasons
- Noncitizens whose “travel falls within the scope of … the United Nations Headquarters Agreement or who are traveling pursuant to United States legal obligation”
- Noncitizens whose age makes requiring the vaccine “inappropriate,” as determined by the CDC
- Noncitizens participating in certain COVID-19 vaccination trials
- Noncitizens who are granted exceptions from the CDC director for “humanitarian or emergency reasons”
- Noncitizens who are citizens of a foreign country where the availability of COVID-19 vaccination is limited. (This includes more than 45 countries most notably Egypt, Uganda, Haiti, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nicaragua, all of which are considered to have limited COVID-19 vaccine availability by the CDC, as of December 7)
- Noncitizens “whose entry would be in the national interest, as determined by the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Transportation, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or their designees”
However, in practical terms, it is important to note that these exceptions are narrow, and exemption approvals will likely be difficult to obtain. Individuals should contact experienced immigration counsel if they are considering applying for an exception to the proclamation.
Additionally, noncitizens who enter the country with an exception “must agree to become fully vaccinated against COVID-19 within 60 days of arriving in the United States, within some other timeframe as determined by the Director of the CDC, or as soon as medically appropriate as determined by the Director of the CDC and must provide proof of having arranged to become fully vaccinated against COVID-19 after arriving in the United States,” with limited exceptions, according to the proclamation.
Proof of vaccination requirements
Travelers and noncitizen can present multiple forms of proof of vaccination to their airline as well as Customs and Border Protection (CBP) before entering the United States.
Individuals can provide a vaccination certificate with a QR code or a digital pass via a smartphone application with a QR code. They also can display a printout of a COVID-19 vaccination record or a COVID-19 vaccination certificate issued by an authorized vaccine provider; digital photos of a vaccination card/record; a downloaded vaccine record or vaccination certificate from an official source; or a mobile phone application without a QR code, according to the CDC.
Proof of vaccination must include personal identifiers such as full name and date of birth; name of the official source issuing the record; as well as the vaccine manufacturer and date of vaccination.
Proof of testing requirements
A COVID-19 testing requirement still remains in place for all individuals entering the United States via air.
Beginning on December 6, 2021, all international air travelers are required to show proof of a negative viral COVID-19 test within one day of their departure to the United States, regardless of their vaccination status. The new requirement applies to all U.S. citizens, permanent residents, noncitizens and foreign nationals.
The new measure replaced a previous provision which required vaccinated travelers to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test within three days of entering the United States while requiring unvaccinated individuals to be tested within 24 hours of flying to the country.
Individuals should contact experienced immigration counsel with any questions or for further information regarding the COVID-19 testing requirement for international travel.
Differences between border and air travel
Currently, the late October proclamation requiring vaccination and testing applies only to air travel into the United States.
As of November 8, 2021, non U.S. citizens can enter the U.S. for nonessential travel with proof of full vaccination and with proper documentation. Those seeking entry based on essential travel are not required to be vaccinated at this time.
However, new provisions announced by the White House will require all non-U.S. travelers entering from Canada and Mexico to be fully vaccinated starting in January 2022 whether coming for essential or nonessential purposes.
Further details about those measures can be found below and on the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) website.
Tips for holiday travel
While the lifting of the travel bans will make the U.S. more accessible to foreign nationals who already hold valid visas and travel documents, for those needing to secure visas or travel documents, unfortunately delays at the U.S. Consulates aboard remain. Garfinkel Immigration encourages those seeking to schedule an appointment at an embassy/consulate to monitor the consulate websites for scheduling information and updates as they plan holiday travel.
Given the expected increase in international travel over the winter holidays, coinciding with the lifting of most COVID-19 restrictions, Garfinkel Immigration offers some tips for traveling internationally in the coming months:
For air travel
As airports and airlines are expected to be busy during the holiday season, when traveling to the U.S. via air the following is recommended:
- Ensure all members of the traveling party have met the vaccination and testing requirements to avoid being denied boarding onto an aircraft or entry into the U.S.
- All travelers should have their vaccination information as well as proof of negative COVID-19 test readily available and accessible. This could help prevent delays and avoid slowing down the process.
- If traveling with children younger than 18 who are exempt from the vaccination requirement, ensure proper documentation showing proof of age is easily available.
- Consider installing and utilizing the CBP mobile app, which allows travelers to submit their passport and customs declaration information on their smartphone or other mobile device. Travelers who use the app “may experience shorter wait times, less congestion and efficient processing,” because they will not have to complete a paper form or use an APC kiosk, according to CBP.
- Do not attempt to obtain an exception at the airport if one has not already been granted. Exemptions are very specific, and airlines do not have the authority to approve one. Exemptions and exceptions can only be authorized by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and/or United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) before the date of departure.
- Be prepared to show vaccine and COVID-19 testing information twice: First to the airline prior to boarding and then again to CBP agents after arrival to the United States.
- Individuals will be required to provide airlines with their phone numbers and email addresses for contact tracing purposes.
For land travel
For land travel between Mexico or Canada and the United States:
- Travelers should be prepared to provide proof of vaccination and explain reasoning for “nonessential travel,” i.e., visiting family members/taking a vacation, at their point of entry.
- Do not attempt to obtain an exception at point of entry if one has not already been granted. CBP agents do not have the authority to approve exemptions and will likely deny entry if vaccination requirements are not met.
- Consider installing and utilizing the CBP mobile app, especially for I-94 form purposes while crossing the border. The app provides “a more convenient way for travelers to apply for an I-94 up to seven days prior to arrival, review their past travel history, check their I-94 expiration date and obtain proof of their electronic I-94 from their mobile device,” according to the CBP website.
- Please note that as of December 7, the vaccination requirement is not currently in place at land borders for those whose travel is deemed “essential.” Individuals traveling for essential purposes who are not vaccinated should be ready to provide proof of visit for a work-related reason. This could include a work permit or other valid documentation.
As a reminder to all international travelers, in preparing for your trip, please ensure you and each member of your party has a valid passport and entry documents (such as a visa stamp, Approval Notice, and/or endorsed I-129S) for entry into the U.S.
If you do not have a valid visa stamp in your passport and require one to enter the U.S., we recommend you plan as far in advance as possible for the visa stamping process. U.S. Consulates and Embassies worldwide are still experiencing backlogs as a result of increasing demand and announcing last-minute appointment cancellations due to staffing shortages, which could impact your travel plans to the U.S.