US Travel Bans: News and Expectations

What are the travel bans currently applicable to citizens of certain countries when coming to the US? What recent changes have taken place? What is their impact? Why are they maintained? What evolution can we expect? In this article we try to answer these questions.

1) Status

As is well known, since January 2020, the US government has been imposing a series of entry bans on travelers from a group of countries as a result of the pandemic caused by COVID-19. These bans, which have hardly changed and currently affect 33 countries, prevent entry when the traveler has been in one of them in the previous 14 days.

The countries affected are, in chronological order of their ban, China, Iran, the Schengen Area, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil, South Africa and India. US citizens and people with permanent residence or “Green Card” are exempt, as well as their spouses and minor children. Diplomats, students with F or M visas, some individual cases and travelers who obtain a “National Interest Exception” or NIE from a US consulate are also exempt.

NIEs are restricted to workers related to critical infrastructure sectors as defined by the government , in addition to journalists, certain types of students and teachers, and a whole series of particular cases. It is important to bear in mind that after 9 months of suspension of a good part of the visas, which was lifted at the end of March 2021, the US consulates are overwhelmed by the enormous number of applications for visas and NIEs they are receiving. For this reason, the associated processing times have skyrocketed in most cases, with appointments for interviews being received many months after starting the process.

For more details on the travel bans, see the US Department of State website or go to the US consulates in each country.

2) Recent updates

In early June, President Biden created several working groups to study possible changes to travel bans from the Schengen Area and the UK, which are meeting every two weeks. They have not yet borne any fruit. 

On June 29, the State Department extended the validity of the NIEs from 30 days to 12 months, and will allow their use for multiple entries to the country as long as they are related to the purpose for which they were approved. This change affects NIEs approved in the previous 12 months and all NIEs granted from now on.

3) Impact on international companies and executives, and possible solutions

The travel bans have very significantly affected the subsidiaries of international companies with interests in the US and based in the affected countries. They have also generated a multitude of difficulties for businesspeople and executives from these nations who wish to travel to the United States, even if they reside in this country or have an approved visa. There have been countless cases of US residents who were in their country of origin when the bans were imposed, being suddenly separated from their family, home and job. Similarly, citizens of the affected nations residing in the US with a visa avoid traveling to their country for fear of not being able to return easily.

This situation, together with the problems in the processing of visas that we have already mentioned, has profoundly altered for more than a year the operations of multinationals with subsidiaries in the US or with plans for expansion to this country. 

In cases where it is possible to request a NIE, it should be done as soon as possible, but understanding that the process can take several months. The other alternative is to travel through any country not subject to the travel bans and spend 14 days before traveling to the US.

4) Pressure to remove or relax travel bans

The upheavals created on international companies and executives, added to the damage done to many sectors of the US economy, have led to multiple requests for the removal or reduction of travel bans in recent weeks from very different fronts.  Some examples: 

  • According to Reuters , a coalition of 24 US industry organizations, representing airlines, casinos, hotels, airports, aircraft manufacturers and others, has asked the White House on July 7 for a reduction of the bans at least for vaccinated travelers.
  • Articles appear more and more frequently in the main US media , like this one in the New York Times, in which the current situation is criticized given the lack of transparency in the criteria followed (countries with much more severe situations have not been or are not subject to any prohibition) and the lack of reciprocity is denounced in some cases (the European Union recommended to its members in June to open their borders to travelers from the USA).
  • According to this Reuters article , various members of the US government such as the Secretary of Commerce and the Secretary of Transportation are pressing in the same line from within the government.
  • Similarly, companies in some affected countries are trying to influence their politicians to request changes from the US administration through diplomatic channels, as is the case of Germany according to this DW article regarding Angela Merkel’s recent visit to Washington DC.

5) No changes yet... why?

Despite all that has been said, the Biden administration has resisted making changes , as explained by Bloomberg News and Travel Daily Media. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has repeatedly issued a cautionary message in recent months and has indicated that it would be premature to remove the bans.

Why? The health authority that advises the US government on these decisions is the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). As explained by The Hill , the vaccination rate in the US must reach confidence levels before the CDC accepts a relaxation of travel bans. Some 1,600 counties in 40 states, with 72 million residents, have vaccinated less than 40% of the population. 

The vaccination campaign began much earlier and with greater force than in much of the rest of the world, however, it has not progressed with the same speed and some sectors of the population are resisting. Local US authorities have tried various methods to incentivize vaccinations, including creative ideas such as lotteries or payouts, with moderate success so far. It is unthinkable for now to expect measures such as those used in France to require the vaccine for travelers or to access certain venues such as restaurants or concert halls. These policies collide head-on with the American culture of protection of individual rights and privacy of data.

On the other hand, the Delta variant of COVID-19 is leading to a significant increase in the number of new cases in the US, especially, as expected, in counties with lower vaccination rates. It is also causing significant increases in many of the countries subject to the bans. All of this contributes to delaying any relaxation of the policies given that President Biden’s No. 1 priority has been from the beginning to control the health crisis.

6) What can we expect?

One of the keys that directly affects decision-making on changes in travel bans is the evolution of the vaccination rate in the US and in the affected countries, as shown in the following graph (source: Our World in Data): 

Percentage of the population that has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine

As we can see, the US was many months ahead of a good part of the developed countries. However, resistance to vaccination in certain sectors of the US population and positive developments in the European Union have meant that several Schengen bloc countries such as Spain, Germany or Italy have recently overtaken the US and maintain a much higher vaccination rate, so the difference will become even more pronounced in the coming weeks

Another key is the evolution of the number of new cases per million inhabitants, by country, as shown in the following graph, from the same source.

New daily confirmed cases of COVID-19 per million population

Clearly the new wave in countries like the United Kingdom or Spain will make it difficult to relax the bans. This wave is already being reproduced in the US, where the number of new cases of COVID-19 has grown by 70% in the last week. Unsurprisingly, a good portion of the new cases have been detected in counties with the lowest vaccination rates. 

The fear in the US is that the increase in travel from countries where the number of cases is growing considerably, such as the United Kingdom and some Schengen countries, will further worsen the situation in the most unprotected areas.

According to Reuters, in news published on July 15 after the meeting between Biden and Merkel, the US administration is considering modifications and will give more information ” in the coming days”. They have highlighted the need to make sustainable decisions.

The same source indicates that CDC wants airlines to implement international passenger contact tracing protocols as a requirement in order to lift restrictions, which may take time. It will also be necessary for the US authorities to accept the vaccination tests that may be provided by travelers, which is problematic.

To conclude and again according to the same Reuters article, airline and government sources have indicated that they do not expect changes before August at the earliest.

In the absence of a crystal ball, we can speculate that, if the good rate of vaccinations in the United Kingdom and the countries of the Schengen Area continues, it is likely that the bans that affect these areas will be relaxed in the next 2 months, at least for vaccinated travelers. This will occur as long as no new variants emerge and no new data contradicts the current view that vaccinated people have a reduced risk of virus transmission.