On September 20, 2021, the Biden administration announced its intention to end all COVID-related geographic travel suspensions, beginning in November 2021. Travel suspensions are currently in place for Brazil, China, India, Ireland, Iran, the Schengen countries, South Africa, and the UK. In lieu of these restrictions, all travelers to the United States will be required to verify full COVID vaccination. The vaccination requirement is in addition to the current requirement that all individuals present proof of a negative COVID test as a condition of embarking on travel to the United States.
Background: Geographic Travel Suspensions
The US COVID-related geographic travel suspensions began in February 2020, with a suspension on entry for any individual who had traveled to mainland China within the 14-day period prior to their intended arrival in the United States. In short succession, these restrictions expanded to Iran, most of Europe, and Brazil. The Biden administration maintained the suspensions, and expanded their scope to include South Africa and India. In all cases, the limitations applied to individuals who had been physically present within a country under suspension within the 14-day period preceding travel.
The travel suspensions did not apply to US citizens, US permanent residents, certain relatives of US citizens and permanent residents, and a few designated immigration categories. Waivers of the requirements could be requested for limited situations, under standards and procedures which evolved over the course of the travel suspensions.
White House Briefing Announces Easing of Geographic Travel Restrictions
Various news reports and a White House briefing on September 20, 2021, confirmed the administration’s plans to rescind geographic COVID-related travel suspensions, beginning in early November 2020. The exact date or dates and related details were not made available as of September 20, 2021. The travel suspensions will remain in place until such time as they are rescinded.
New Travel Protocols to be Announced
As mentioned above, rather than the patchwork of travel suspensions, the US will transition to vaccination, testing and tracing requirements. Following this transition, all international travelers will have to verify COVID vaccination, in compliance with guidance which will be issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC). The vaccination requirement is in addition to testing requirements. The current pre-boarding, COVID-testing requirements were explained in our January 20, 2021 blog post “US Requires Negative COVID Tests or Proof of Recovery for all International Air Travelers; Biden Expected to Reinstate Travel Suspension Proclamation | International Compliance Blog.”.
End of Travel Suspensions Open Travel for Many; Hurdles Remain Due to Consular Capacity Limits
Initial news reports focused on the termination of European travel suspensions, a prospect that has generated considerable anticipation. The travel suspensions have placed an extended hold on what had previously been routine cross-Atlantic business travel. While recent favorable changes to the policies for exceptions to the travel suspension—known as National Interest Exceptions (NIEs)—had helped facilitate access to the United States for limited numbers of travelers, the process remained location-specific and discretionary.
The elimination of the travel suspensions stands to be immediately beneficial to individuals who are eligible to travel using the visa waiver (ESTA) program as well as those who have valid US visas for their intended travel purposes. Others who will need to obtain a US visa “stamp” at a US consulate may face additional hurdles and are cautioned against making travel plans without first investigating visa appointment limitations in their area. At this time, US consulates are operating at reduced capacities; visa appointments are generally limited. In many cases, appointments are available for emergencies only, with the exception of priority categories, such as students eligible for F-1 visas. Thus, unless an individual has the required travel documentation or is eligible for travel using the visa waiver (ESTA) program, travel may not be immediately available, even after the suspensions end.
For more information about these and related developments, contact a member of Steptoe’s immigration practice group or the authors of this post, Elizabeth LaRocca and Dana Delott.