U.S. Department of State Announces More Flexible National Interest Exemptions for Students and Academic Travelers

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On April 26, 2021, the U.S. Department of State issued updated guidance on “National Interest Exceptions for Certain Travelers from China, Iran, Brazil, South Africa, Schengen Area, United Kingdom, and Ireland,” which should facilitate more streamlined travel for F-1 and M-1 students and J-1 academics covered by exchange visitor programs, if they have pre-existing valid visas.

As many universities and employers are aware, the majority of non-U.S. citizens, including U.S. student or employee visa holders, who are physically present within the above-mentioned countries (in addition to India) in the 14 days prior to seeking entry to the United States are prohibited from entering the United States, with limited exceptions (lawful permanent residents, diplomats, air and sea crew, certain family members of U.S. citizens and LPRs).

To enter the United States, individuals subject to the travel restrictions must typically first obtain a U.S. National Interest Exemption (NIE) by applying with the local U.S. consulate in their home countries for special permission to travel.

Based on the new guidelines, the U.S. Department of State has streamlined the process with simplified instructions for individuals who already hold valid student visa stamps, explaining that these students will automatically be granted an NIE if entering within 30 days of their academic program start date (qualifying programs must start August 1, 2021 or later). Per the guidelines:

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.

Thus, there is no longer any requirement that students with existing F-1 and M-1 visa stamps contact the embassy to undertake the exemption process. Instead, students with F-1 and M-1 visas can travel to the United States immediately to begin a qualifying academic program within 30 days of the program start date (August 1, 2021 or later).

Nevertheless, for students in need of new student visa stamps, the U.S. Department of State advises that prospective applicants must contact the U.S. embassy to attend a visa appointment and obtain an exemption from the embassy for travel to the United States:

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. 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.

This means that students who do not already hold approved F-1 or M-1 visa stamps will still need to allot sufficient time to contact the local embassy and attend an appointment, so that they can obtain new visa stamps and be considered for an NIE for purposes of academic travel.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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