The State Department has just announced an exception to the COVID-related visa and entry ban for persons present in China. Namely, applicants for F-1 student visas and J-1 exchange visitor visas for academic programs will qualify for a “national interest exception” (NIE) to the ban, so they may be issued visas and enter the United States. This applies only if their academic program begins Aug. 1, 2021 or later. They may enter the U.S. no earlier than 30 days before the start of their academic studies.
Travelers in categories described above who have a valid visa in the appropriate class should contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate before traveling, if they believe they may qualify for an NIE. If an NIE is approved, they may travel on the valid visa.
The State Department cautions that students seeking to apply for new F-1 visas should “check the status of visa services at the nearest embassy or consulate.” But, unfortunately, the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in China do not get passing grades for coordinating this policy change: at this moment, neither the U.S. Embassy’s nonimmigrant visa webpage nor ustraveldocs.com (used for scheduling appointments) mention whether F-1 visa appointments are available under the new policy.
In January 2020 then President Donald Trump first imposed the restrictions barring nearly all non-U.S. citizens who were in China from entering the United States. The American Council on Education (ACE) had reportedly pressed the Biden administration to act quickly to lift the ban, saying in a letter last month it could “deliver a welcoming message to current and prospective international students, which can help restore the U.S. as a destination of choice, as well as supporting an important economic activity as the U.S. economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Here is the original State Department announcement:
On April 26, 2021, the Secretary of State made a national interest determination regarding categories of travelers eligible for exceptions under Presidential Proclamations (PPs) 9984, 9992, and 10143 related to the spread of COVID-19. As a result of this determination, together with national interest determinations already in place, travelers subject to these proclamations, due to their presence in China, Iran, Brazil, South Africa, the Schengen area, the United Kingdom, and Ireland, who are seeking to provide vital support for critical infrastructure; journalists; students and certain academics covered by exchange visitor programs, may now qualify for a National Interest Exception (NIE). Students and academics subject to these proclamations due to their presence in China, Iran, Brazil, or South Africa, may qualify for an NIE only if their academic program begins August 1, 2021 or later. Qualified travelers who are applying for or have valid visas or ESTA authorization may travel to the United States following the procedures below, even as PPs 9984, 9992, and 10143 remain in effect.
Students with valid F-1 and M-1 visas intending to begin or continue an academic program commencing August 1, 2021 or later do not need to contact an embassy or consulate to seek an individual NIE to travel. They may enter the United States no earlier than 30 days before the start of their academic studies. Students seeking to apply for new F-1 or M-1 visas should check the status of visa services at the nearest embassy or consulate; those applicants who are found to be otherwise qualified for an F-1 or M-1 visa will automatically be considered for an NIE to travel.
Travelers in categories described above who have a valid visa in the appropriate class or who have a valid ESTA authorization for travel under the Visa Waiver Program and seek to travel for purposes consistent with ESTA authorization, should contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate before traveling, if they believe they may qualify for a National Interest Exception. If a National Interest Exception is approved, they may travel on either a valid visa or ESTA authorization, as appropriate.
The Department of State also continues to grant NIEs for qualified travelers seeking to enter the United States for purposes related to humanitarian travel, public health response, and national security. These travelers and any others who believe their travel to be in the United States’ national interest should also review the website of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate for instruction on how to contact them.
As with all NIEs for qualified travelers seeking to enter the United States under a Presidential Proclamation, if circumstances warrant, the Secretary of State may revise the national interest determination