Travel Q&A: Know the Latest Before Traveling as Pandemic’s Effects Continue

Jan 5, 2022 | Consular Services & Travel

Due to the ongoing pandemic, including the rapid worldwide spread of the new “Omicron” variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, along with risks from the continuing Delta variant, the situation for international travelers remains in a state of flux.

Among the ongoing concerns are varying country and local conditions that affect consular posts’ ability to process visa applications and return to full operation, the resulting effects on visa wait times, limited availability of expedited appointments, “triage” due to limited capacity resulting in some visa types being prioritized over others, and backlogs in some areas.

The bottom line: Travelers should check for the latest updates before making plans or traveling, and should bring proof of vaccination when they travel.

Selected highlights as of late December 2021 are summarized in the Q&A below.

What COVID-19 testing and vaccination requirements do I need to meet to enter the United States now?

Testing. Inbound international air passengers must take a COVID-19 viral test within a day of their departure, regardless of their vaccination status. Also, the mask requirement on domestic flights and public transportation—including buses, trains, planes, bus terminals, and airports—has been extended through March 18, 2021. Fines for noncompliance with the mask requirement range from $500 for a first offense to $3,000 for repeat violations.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that the one-day period for testing means one day before the flight’s departure, with flexibility in the timing. Test acceptability does not depend on the time of the flight or the time of day when the test sample was taken, which is why the CDC specified one day rather than 24 hours. For example, if your flight is at 1 pm on a Friday, you could board with a negative test that was taken at any time on the day before.

Vaccination. It’s a good idea to bring proof of COVID-19 vaccination when you travel. Such proof is increasingly required for travel and before entering many venues worldwide.

With some exceptions, if you are a non-U.S. citizen who is a nonimmigrant (not a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, lawful permanent resident, or traveling to the United States on an immigrant visa), you must show proof of being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before you can travel by air to the United States from a foreign country. Your last dose of the COVID-19 vaccine must have been taken a full 14 days before the day you board your flight to the United States.

Accepted COVID-19 vaccines currently include Janssen/Johnson & Johnson (single dose); Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna (2-dose series); and AstraZeneca, Covaxin, Covishield, BIBP/Sinopharm, Sinovac, and Novavax/Covovax (2-dose series). The Department of State defers to the CDC regarding accepted vaccines.

Are any country-based travel bans still in effect?

Temporary travel restrictions at the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico have been lifted. Those restrictions applied to non-essential travel by travelers entering via land ports and ferry service.

Also, the temporary country-based travel restrictions imposed in November have been lifted for Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

What should I do if I need an exception to the vaccine requirement?

If you’re coming to the United States from abroad, your local U.S. embassy or consulate can help with collecting your information and forwarding it to the CDC, which reviews such requests and has the authority to approve. The CDC also makes decisions regarding national interest exceptions and emergency requests regarding vaccination. CDC will either respond to you or to the local embassy or consulate.

What’s the situation regarding in-person interviews for nonimmigrants?

Consular officers are now authorized to waive in-person interviews for certain temporary employment nonimmigrant visa applicants, including those applying for H-1, H-3, H-4, L, O, P, and Q visas who meet certain conditions, including that they are applying for a visa in their country of nationality or residence. The visa interview in-person waiver is also extended for certain students, professors, research scholars, short-term scholars, and specialists (F, M, and academic J visa applicants) through the end of 2022. Also extended is the visa interview in-person waiver through December 31, 2022, for temporary agricultural and non-agricultural workers (H-2 visas), students (F and M visas), and student exchange visitors (academic J visas).

Those who are eligible for the waiver because they are citizens or nationals of a Visa Waiver Program participating country must have previously traveled to the United States using an authorization obtained by the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).

The State Department encourages applicants to check the website of the relevant U.S. embassy or consulate to confirm the level of services currently offered and to find guidelines for applying for a visa without an interview. Embassies and consulates may still require an in-person interview on a case-by-case basis and depending on local conditions, the agency noted.

What’s the latest on U.S. passports?

The fee for a U.S. passport book increased by $20 on December 27, 2021. The previous fee for renewing a U.S. passport book by mail was $110; as of December 27, that fee rose by 18.2% to $130.

Also, the State Department plans to launch its long-awaited online passport renewal system, which has been undergoing testing, by fall 2022.

Contact your WR attorney for advice and help in specific situations.

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