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LATEST NEWS: COVID-19 Visa and Travel Status Update

As of 9/13/21: New Q&A added about vaccines. Also, a dedicated webinar on U.S. Guest Artist Visas and International Travel in the Age of COVID-19 is available, along with a transcript and slide deck, free of charge. 

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, several U.S. presidential proclamations have been issued to suspend entry of all noncitizens who were physically present in any of 33 countries. These proclamations are still in place today, which requires a large number of international guest artists to obtain a National Interest Exception (NIE) waiver to enable them to enter the U.S. without first needing to quarantine elsewhere for 14 days. There have been reports of widely varying interpretations by consulates on the policy of issuing NIEs for artists and there is a lack of consistent guidance as to how best to seek a waiver. Below is a summary of what we know about the overall process to date:

Which countries are subject to these restrictions?
Austria, Belgium, Brazil, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, India, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and United Kingdom. These travel restrictions do not apply to U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and certain other designated travelers listed in the June 24 State Department NIE guidance.

How long will the NIE waiver remain valid? Is it one-time only?
The State Department recently announced that NIE waivers will be valid for 12 months from the date of approval and eligible for use for multiple entries. The condition is that the purpose must be the same as what was indicated in the approved NIE, which is somewhat open to interpretation. Artists, of course, will still require a visa to enter the U.S.

What does it take to qualify for an NIE?
In June, the State Department slightly expanded the NIE eligibility opportunities in its latest update on the travel ban directive. In addition to the broad "national interest" category, and specifying that the somewhat complex critical infrastructure criterion applies beyond supply chains to all areas of critical infrastructure (including the commercial facilities sector), the State Department has reinstated opportunities for NIEs for:

  • travelers providing vital support or executive direction for significant economic activity in the United States

This criterion had been withdrawn in the previous version of the State Department directive and may provide an opportunity for international ensembles and artists to qualify. There is no specific formula for success, but one must be able to connect economic impact to a specific artist’s unique and necessary presence. Many petitioners are finding it helpful to obtain letters of support from their mayors, business leaders, and others who can speak to the value of the U.S. employer and of the specific arts event that requires the beneficiary seeking an NIE waiver. While one does not need to hire an attorney to apply for an NIE waiver, it may be very helpful to do so. Experienced visa practitioners who have been advisors on the NIE-related content of this website include Tamizdat, GG Arts Law, and Blue Skies Immigration, LLC.

How much lead time is required for both visa and NIE approval?
It’s always best to allow for as much processing time as possible (up to one year) for visa classification approval by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Be sure to keep an eye on the posted processing times (currently up to 4.5 months for O visas at California Service Center), and consider whether you might need to upgrade to Premium Processing Service.

Remember that USCIS approval is only the first step; staff reductions due to COVID-19, as well as a number of public health measures such as social distancing, has resulted in very lengthy wait times for appointments to complete the final visa processing steps at consulates worldwide. Whereas a 2- or 3- week window for consular processing used to be possible, some consulates are not even scheduling appointments until 2022, and emergency appointments are limited to medical and humanitarian needs. When seeking to schedule an interview, note that NIE waivers cannot be issued more than 60 days before intended entry into the U.S. and consider whether artists who already have an NIE issued earlier in the year may qualify for the mail-in program. If you don’t have at least several months of lead time and are not prepared to pay the PPS fee, success seems dubious.

Is there a vaccination mandate for artists entering the U.S.?

There is not a vaccination requirement to enter the U.S. but before departing for the U.S. travelers do need to present proof of a negative COVID test or recovery from COVID. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website is the best source for international travelers to stay informed about the latest guidance, requirements, and answers to frequently asked questions. 

What Can I Do? What Does the Future Hold?
Experienced visa professionals are advising arts organizations to carefully consider plans for programming international artists for this fall given the sustained consular delays. Even if the travel restrictions were to be lifted, consular delays will only worsen due to a likely surge of new requests for visa interviews. If your artists are located in any of the 33 countries (or cannot avoid passing through them en route to the U.S., as even layovers count) and do not already possess an NIE waiver, consider your back-up plan, should travel not be possible.

Many U.S. national arts service organizations have been working together to urge the U.S. Department of State to support artist travel and other policy improvements (PDF) and remind USCIS about several longstanding requests that would improve the artist visa process (PDF).

The situation around the presidential proclamation remains fluid, so artists and petitioners should prepare for several scenarios and be sure to set reasonable expectations given the backdrop of the global pandemic, the intricacy of policymaking, and the high level of discretion afforded to consulates. This news page will be updated with the latest news and implications relating to NIEs and travel from COVID-19 restricted countries.

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