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US eases travel restrictions for European students

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • In a rare exception to sweeping travel bans that have been in place since March, the US is now allowing travellers from the Schengen Area, the UK and Ireland to enter the country with F-1 or M-1 visas

The US effectively closed its borders to international travellers in mid-March, but a July announcement from the US State Department eased those restrictions for some visitors from Europe.

More specifically, those travelling from the Schengen Area, the UK, and Ireland “with valid F-1 and M-1 visas, do not need to seek a national interest exception to travel.” In other words, students travelling from those specified European countries who already hold a valid study visa for the US may now enter the country.

“Granting national interest exceptions for this travel to the United States from the Schengen area, UK, and Ireland, will assist with the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and bolster key components of our transatlantic relationship,” notes the State Department statement. “We appreciate the transparency and concerted efforts of our European partners and allies to combat this pandemic and welcome the EU’s reciprocal action to allow key categories of essential travel to continue.”

That reciprocal action, however, has not yet been extended by the EU. The European Union began to open its borders to non-EU travellers in early July, and continues to update its list of “third countries” (from which travellers from outside the EU may be admitted) every two weeks. As of the last update to that list, on 7 August, travellers from Australia, Canada, Japan, and, pending “confirmation of reciprocity”, China – among several others – may undertake “non-essential travel into the EU”. The United States, however, has not yet been included.

In order to be added to the EU list, countries have to meet specific criteria, including:

  • “number of new COVID-19 cases over the last 14 days and per 100 000 inhabitants close to or below the EU average (as it stood on 15 June 2020);
  • stable or decreasing trend of new cases over this period in comparison to the previous 14 days;
  • overall response to COVID-19 taking into account available information, including on aspects such as testing, surveillance, contact tracing, containment, treatment and reporting, as well as the reliability of the information and, if needed, the total average score for International Health Regulations (IHR). Information provided by EU delegations on these aspects should also be taken into account.”

Details of the US exemption

The Schengen Area consists of 26 European countries – including four that are outside of the European Union – that have done away with passport controls (or other border controls) at their shared borders. The current members are Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malt, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Ireland and the UK are outside of the Schengen group but have nevertheless been included in the US travel exemption.

On the question of students hoping to study in the US who do not yet have visas, the State Department adds, “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 a national interest exception to travel.” In a related development, the US government also announced in July a phased resumption of visa services at US diplomatic posts around the world. The State Department adds, “We are unable to provide a specific date for when each mission will resume specific visa services, or when each mission will return to processing at pre-COVID workload levels. See each individual US Embassy or Consulate’s website for information regarding operating status and which services it is currently offering.”

The exemption for European students is notable in that it is one of the few such exceptions to the travel ban extended by the US administration to this point. The ban remains in place for students from all other countries, including those holding J-1 visas for exchange programmes and other short-term placements in the United States.

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