Many of the regional health-related travel bans that were instituted in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic remain in place. These bans do not apply to U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents with green cards, and there are some other exceptions. But for the most part, tourists and people traveling with a U.S. visa cannot enter the U.S. if they have been physically present in one of the banned countries within 14 days. The banned countries include China, Iran, Brazil, India, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and most of continental Europe (the Schengen region). These bans apply across the board to people with already-issued visas, new visa applicants, and people registering for tourist travel under ESTA. People who need to travel to the U.S. from one of the banned countries can either spend two weeks in another non-banned country first, or they can seek a National Interest Exception (“NIE”) to the travel ban. These NIEs are primarily for travelers who are coming to the U.S. to work in a critical infrastructure area, such as transportation, energy, healthcare, or defense. Requests for an NIE must be made to the local Consulate abroad, typically in connection with a visa appointment or via email for individuals who already have valid U.S. visas. Procedures and standards vary from Consulate to Consulate, so it is very important to check the website of the local post if you need to request an NIE. Processing times and the odds for success also vary widely by location, as some Consulates are more generous with NIEs than others.
Prior to July 2021, most NIEs took the form of a travel authorization letter valid for 30 days and a single entry to the U.S. However, since the travel bans have remained in place longer than was previously anticipated, the State Department recently extended the validity period of previously-issued NIEs. Under the new policy, NIEs are now valid for 12 months from the date of issuance and can be used for multiple U.S. entries. This policy applies retroactively, so people with NIE letters that were only valid for 30 days can continue to use them for up to a year after the original issuance date. One caveat is that the person must be entering the U.S. for the same purpose upon which the NIE request was originally granted. So, someone who was granted an NIE to come to the U.S. as an H-1B worker in the energy sector could not use their existing NIE letter to enter the U.S. as a tourist for a family trip to Disney World.
This automatic extension of existing NIEs is good news for both travelers and Consular staff. Reducing the number of times people must seek an NIE will help ease the workload at America’s Consulates, many of which are facing substantial case backlogs due to extended COVID-related closures. International travel in the age of COVID continues to be complicated, but the automatic NIE extension policy is a helpful step.
Contact Best Law Offices, P.C. today if you have questions about international travel policies, visa appointments, or NIEs.