Here’s what you need to know about travelling to the USA while COVID-19-related travel bans are in place, including how you can apply to travel from travel ban countries by making a National Interest Exception (NIE) application.

US Travel Bans

The USA has had COVID-19-related travel bans in place since March 2020, meaning if you’ve been physically presented in any of these places within 14 days of travelling to the USA – even if you’ve just changed planes at the airport – you’ll be refused entry to the country.

Under Presidential Proclamations 9984, 9992, 9993, 9996 and the subsequent proclamations issued May 24, 2020, and January 25, 2021, travel to the USA from the following countries is prohibited:

  • Brazil
  • China (excluding the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau)
  • Iran
  • Ireland
  • South Africa
  • United Kingdom (excluding overseas territories outside of Europe)
  • The 26 countries of the Schengen Area (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland)
us travel ban countries

So if you’re travelling from Russia to the USA and you fly direct, that’s fine, but if you change planes in Amsterdam, Dublin, London Heathrow, Frankfurt or Paris, you’ll be subject to the travel ban and denied entry to the country. And if you attempt to travel to the USA from the UK directly, you’ll simply be denied boarding.

LATEST NEWS: Travel Ban Update

In September 2021, the US announced that it will be loosening the rules on international travel to open up travel from travel ban countries for any reason, including tourism.

From ‘early November’, fully vaccinated travellers from travel ban countries – like the UK, EU and India – will be able to travel to the USA for any reason, providing they are fully vaccinated with an approved vaccine. However, there are still outstanding questions that haven’t been addressed:

  • we still don’t have a confirmed date for when the travel ban will be lifted. Only ‘early November’ has been announced, so we’ll need to wait a little longer yet to know precisely when we’ll be able to travel
  • what ‘fully vaccinated’ means hasn’t been clarified. Most countries define ‘fully vaccinated’ as ’14 days after your second dose of an approved vaccine’.
  • It’s unclear how those vaccinated with mix-and-match vaccines will be treated (as is common in Canada) or whether those recovering from COVID-19 but having only had one jab will be considered ‘fully vaccinated’
  • whether unvaccinated children will be exempt from the travel ban hasn’t be explained. The UK has only just started an under-18 vaccination programme and with the space between jabs 12 weeks – plus the likely 14 day post-second dose waiting period – the repeal of the travel ban won’t come soon enough for families looking to travel to the US for Christmas. What happens to younger children – such as the under 12s who aren’t currently in scope for vaccination – is a huge quesntionmark
  • pre-departure COVID-19 tests will be required before travelling to the USA although it’s not clear whether a cheaper lateral flow test will be accepted or if a more expensive PCR test will be needed. The test needs to be done within 72 hours of departure, so going on the requirements of other governments it’s likely that a PCR test will be needed

While not part of the official White House announcement, the USA’s top  COVID doctor, Dr Anthony Fauci, has said he ‘doesn’t see any reason’ why the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine would not be recognised by US authorities, even though the jab isn’t approved for use in the country.

So this is good news for those looking to travel to the USA later in the year, but if you need to travel Stateside before the travel ban changes come into effect in November, here’s how you can do it.

US Travel Ban Exceptions

But there are exceptions to the travel ban.

You can travel to the USA from a travel ban country if you are a:

  • US citizen
  • US Green Card holder or Lawful Permanent Resident
  • Close family member of a US citizen or Green Card holders (including, among others, spouses and unmarried children under 21)
  • Crew member of an airline or shipping companies (C-1/D visas)
  • Diplomat, government official or their family member (A-1, A-2, C-2, C-3, G-1, G-2, G-3, G-4, NATO visas)
  • Member of the US Armed Forces or their family member
  • Individual whose entry supports important US law enforcement objectives
  • Foreign traveller from a country not listed in the proclamations (including Turkey, Russia, Mexico, etc.)

If none of the above apply to you, you may still be able to enter the USA by applying for a National Interest Exception.

National Interest Exceptions (NIE)

The US has created a list of permitted reasons for travel from travel ban countries, allowing qualifying people travelling for certain purposes to apply for a National Interest Exception (NIE).

You may be eligible to apply for an NIE if you can demonstrate that you qualify under one of the following categories:

  • Provision of “vital support or executive direction for critical infrastructure or critical infrastructure-related supply chains in the U.S.”
  • Provision of “vital support or executive direction for significant economic activity in the United States”
  • Health professionals working on COVID-19 containment / persons working in the health care sector
  • Travel for humanitarian or medical emergencies
  • Travel for US national security reasons
  • Harvest workers
  • Service providers for US authorities (e.g. military)
  • Pilots / aircrew traveling for training purposes and aircraft pickup, delivery, or maintenance (ESTA, B-1 visas, B-1/B-2 visas , M-1 visas, and certain dependents with M-2 visas)
  • Journalists (I visas), media and media support workers
  • Sportspeople and Entertainers, including their support staff (O visas and P visas)
  • Immigrant or fiancé(e) visa applicants (K-1 visas)
  • Certain exchange visitors (J-1 visas; e. g. au pairs with special skills)
  • Certain academics and students (J-1 visas)
  • Students (F-1 or M-1 visas)

To qualify under the “critical infrastructure or critical infrastructure supply chains”, you need to work in one of the following 16 industries:

  • Chemical
  • Commercial Facilities
  • Communications
  • Critical Manufacturing
  • Dams
  • Defense Industrial Base
  • Emergency Services
  • Energy
  • Financial
  • Food and Agriculture
  • Government Facilities
  • Healthcare and Public Health
  • Information Technology
  • Nuclear Reactors, Materials & Waste
  • Transportation Systems
  • Water

To qualify under “significant economic activity”, you must

  • Travel to support a major entertainment production conducted in the USA that would not go on without the traveller, such as a music concert or sports event
  • Be a highly specialised professional or expert to install, service, maintain or receive training for vessels, machinery and other critical equipment required by US and foreign firms with a substantial investment in the United States, such as oil and gas or nuclear power infrastructure 
  • Be an executive or senior-level employee providing strategy and direction to US and foreign firms with a substantial investment in the United States, such as a venture capitalist, financier or potential buyer of a US-based firm

Basically, if you could conduct your business via a Zoom call or other electronic means, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be given permission to travel to the USA using an NIE.

Family members may also be eligible to travel with you under an NIE if your travel falls into the above categories and it is justified that the family members are traveling with you, such as where your travel will last for at least four weeks.

National Interest Exception Application Process

You make an NIE application at your local US embassy or consulate. In the UK, that’s either the US Embassy in London or the US Consulate in Northern Ireland.

Applications are made by email, and you must include all required documents and sufficient supporting evidence that you qualify for an NIE.

Well-prepared NIE applications are typically assessed and NIE certificates issued by email within 24 hours of application, however it can take up to 60 days for a decision to be made.

Using a professional immigration consultant to prepare your NIE application is the best way to ensure it’s 100% correct and increase the chances of a quick turnaround.

When the NIE is issued it’ll be valid for 12 months and is multi-entry, meaning you can come and go to the USA for the same travel purpose as many times as you need.

National Interest Exceptions Application Cost

The US Embassy doesn’t charge a fee for an NIE application.

You’ll only pay a service fee if you decide to use an immigration consultant to prepare your NIE for you, which covers the work to ensure your NIE application is 100% correctly prepared and that you qualify under one of the NIE categories.

Existing US Visa and ESTA Holders

You can apply for an NIE if you currently hold a valid US visa or have a valid electronic travel authorisation under the ESTA scheme.

US Visa Applications

The US is still not processing Visitor visa applications (B-1 and B-2) in many countries, but is processing applications for Media (I visas), Student (F-1 and M-1) and other travel purposes. If you need to apply for a US visa to travel, you’ll automatically be considered for an NIE at the same time. If your US visa is issued, you’ll get your NIE details printed on the visa vignette.

COVID-19 Testing

All travellers to the USA over the age of 2 years old must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before travel. This includes US citizens, Green Card holders, NIE travellers and all other types of traveller.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has a full run-down of the testing requirements, but you are able to use one of a number of different tests, including:

  • nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT)
  • reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR)
  • reverse transcription loop-mediated isothermal amplification (RT-LAMP)
  • transcription-mediated amplification (TMA)
  • nicking enzyme amplification reaction (NEAR)
  • helicase-dependent amplification (HDA)

Your test must be licenced in the country where you purchase it, and it must meet the specificity requirements outlined by the CDC

You need to take your test three days before you travel to the USA.

Help with my visa! has partnered with a government-approved COVID-19 testing company, Agilis Health, to offer testing services that are compliant for travel to the USA. You can order your test packages for travel to the USA from the UK on our website, as well as ordering rapid antigen tests that can be taken while in the USA before you return back to the UK, and Day 2/ Day 8 PCR tests for after your arrival in the UK.

Get Professional Assistance Making Your NIE Application

If you need to travel to the USA using the NIE scheme you’ll want to be absolutely sure your application is correctly prepared to show that you qualify. Well-prepared NIE applications are processed much quicker – sometimes within 24 hours – meaning you’ll be able to make your important trip Stateside sooner.

To avoid any unnecessary delays, you can use a professional immigration consultant to prepare your NIE application for you. To get started immediately, you can use Help with my visa! to book an appointment with a vetted immigration consultant, who’ll take you through the entire NIE application process. Next day appointments are available and you can book and pay for the NIE application service within just 3 minutes.

Click the button below to find an immigration consultant to prepare your NIE application for you and get started today.

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