Although the federal government rescinded its order for international students taking an all-online fall 2020 curriculum to leave the U.S., other restrictions could hurt their chances of returning to the country this fall.
To get back to the U.S. for the fall semester, international students must navigate the following:
Student Visa (F-1 Visa) Status
The reentry process for students varies greatly on whether their F-1 visas are still valid. If a student’s F-1 visa is not valid, the likelihood of the student getting back to the U.S. for the start of the fall semester is slim. The U.S. Department of State initially canceled all routine visa appointments. It will resume visa services at certain consular posts on a phased-in basis, with timelines dependent on local country conditions related to COVID-19. If a student’s F-1 visa is still valid, the student can likely enter the country. Otherwise, the student’s ability to obtain a new visa will depend on local consular procedures.
Current Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status (Form I-20)
If a student’s F-1 visa remains valid, the next question is whether the student has been out of the U.S. for more than five months. If so, the student must obtain a new I-20 form and have it certified. An international student can ask the university for a new certified I-20 form. The certification is made by a university employee and simply certifies that the student is enrolled for the upcoming semester.
Country-Specific Travel Restrictions
The federal government issued travel restrictions for countries that experienced significant COVID-19 outbreaks. Restrictions vary by country. For example, the federal travel restriction issued in May suspends entry to the U.S. for all foreign nationals who were physically present within Brazil during the 14-day period before their attempted entry to the U.S. There are no exemptions for F-1 visa holders. The remaining exemptions are business- and embassy-centric. With no indication of when the travel restriction will be lifted, it poses a great obstacle to Brazilian students’ reentry to the U.S.
The greatest hurdle international students face is overcoming these travel restrictions. Most are physical-presence based, meaning that the restriction does not contemplate a traveler’s country of origin, but only that a traveler has been physically present within 14 days of attempted entry to the U.S. As such, a student can “wait it out” for 14 days in a non-restricted country before flying from the non-restricted country to the U.S. If a student spends 14 days in a non-travel restricted country before traveling to the U.S., the student will not have been physically present in a restricted country for the 14-day period leading up to entry to the U.S. To do this, a student must find a country that the U.S. has not imposed physical presence travel restrictions on that itself does not have a physical presence travel restriction for the country the student is coming from.
Please contact Brandon Davis, Laura Buck or any other member of Phelps’ Immigration team if you have questions or need compliance advice and guidance. For more information related to COVID-19, see Phelps’ COVID-19: Client Resource Portal.
Special thanks to our contributing author, Luke St. Germain, a 2020 summer associate from LSU Law.