Making sense of US travel restrictions in light of COVID-19



Canada Publication March 23, 2020 - 2 PM ET

In the context of the global outbreak of COVID-19 many American citizens and green card holders are wondering how and if they can travel back to the US.

In light of COVID-19, this update summarizes recent US immigration developments, including restrictions on entry to the United States, the closure of Application Service Centers and field offices in the US, closure of US embassies and consulates worldwide, and requests for extensions of stay in the US. 

Canada/US: Non-essential cross-border travel suspended

Effective March 21, 2020, the United States and Canada have temporarily restricted travel through land ports of entry and ferry terminals along the Canada-United States border to “essential travel” only. The restrictions will remain in effect until 11:59 p.m. on April 20, 2020, but may be rescinded or extended as deemed necessary. The restriction is aimed at stopping travellers who wish to cross the border for tourism purposes (e.g., shopping, sightseeing, recreation, gambling, or attending cultural events).

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has defined “essential travel” to include:

  • U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents returning to the United States;
  • Individuals traveling for medical purposes (e.g., to receive medical treatment in the United States);
  • Individuals traveling to attend educational institutions;
  • Individuals traveling to work in the United States (e.g., individuals working in the farming or agriculture industry who must travel between the United States and Canada in furtherance of such work);
  • Individuals traveling for emergency response and public health purposes (e.g., government officials or emergency responders entering the United States to support federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial government efforts to respond to COVID-19 or other emergencies);
  • Individuals engaged in lawful cross-border trade (e.g., truck drivers supporting the movement of cargo between the United States and Canada);
  • Individuals engaged in official government travel or diplomatic travel;
  • Members of the US Armed Forces, and the spouses and children of members of the US Armed Forces, returning to the United States; and
  • Individuals engaged in military-related travel or operations.

These restrictions do not apply to air, freight rail, or sea travel between the United States and Canada at this time.
At the time of this writing, we do not know how US Customs and Border Protection (USCBP) officers will apply this new policy to (1) Canadians who wish to enter the US with their existing US work permits, and to (2) Canadians who wish to apply for new work authorization or renew existing work authorization (L-1 and TN status) at the border.
Both President Trump and Prime Minister Trudeau have stated trade and commerce will not be affected by this suspension. The cross-border restriction should not interrupt legitimate trade between the two countries or disrupt critical supply chains that ensure food, fuel, medicine, and other critical materials reach individuals on both sides of the border.

Suspension of entry – presidential proclamations

Foreign nationals (i.e., not US citizens) who have been physically present in the following countries during the 14 days prior to their attempted entry into the US will not be permitted entry: 

  • People’s Republic of China, excluding the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau
  • Islamic Republic of Iran;
  • the Schengen Area: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands; Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland;
  • United Kingdom, excluding overseas territories outside of Europe; and
  • Republic of Ireland.


Restrictions do not apply to:

  • US citizens
  • US lawful permanent residents (i.e., green card holders);
  • Immediate relatives (parent, spouse, child, siblings of a certain age) of US citizens or green card holders;
  • Specific non-immigrant visa holders: Crew members, diplomats, government officials;
  • Members of the US armed forces and their families; and
  • Individuals whose entry would be deemed in the national interest or to promote law enforcement objectives.

Process for Americans returning to the US

As of March 14, American citizens, lawful permanent residents, and their immediate families who are returning home after recently visiting any of the restricted countries set out by the presidential proclamations will now be required to travel through the following 13 airports:

  • Boston-Logan International Airport (BOS), Massachusetts
  • Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD), Illinois
  • Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), Texas
  • Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW), Michigan
  • Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL), Hawaii
  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), Georgia
  • John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), New York
  • Los Angeles International Airport, (LAX), California
  • Miami International Airport (MIA), Florida
  • Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), New Jersey
  • San Francisco International Airport (SFO), California
  • Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), Washington
  • Washington-Dulles International Airport (IAD), Virginia

Upon arrival, airline passengers must proceed to standard customs processing. They will then continue to enhanced entry screening where passengers will be asked about their medical histories, current conditions/temperature checks, and asked for contact information to provide to local health authorities. Passengers will then be given written guidance about COVID-19 and directed to self-quarantine in accordance with CDC best practices when they reach their final destination in the US. 
Implementing these new arrival procedures has been challenging for the designated airports. Media is reporting very long wait times, with passengers grouped together for hours. 
At the time of this writing, there is no US policy in place that allows airlines to prevent travelers from boarding a plane to the US if they have symptoms associated with COVID-19 — regardless of citizenship status.

Extending ESTA/visa waiver participants' periods of admission  

Individuals admitted under the ESTA/Visa Waiver Program (VWP) who are unable to depart the US before their period of admission expires because of COVID-19-related issues AND who were admitted to the US through John F. Kennedy International Airport, NY (JFK) and Newark Liberty International Airport, NJ (EWR) only can contact the deferred inspections office at JFK and request to extend their stay beyond 90 days for up to 30 additional days.

The USCBP at the Seattle field office will be implementing a similar process in the coming days. An official effective date has not been announced.
Travellers will need to provide their names, dates of birth and passport information at the time of the request. They may be asked to provide the original departure flight itinerary along with the new flight itinerary.
Requests for an extension of stay (also known as a request for a “satisfactory departure”) can be made by those with ESTA/VWP expirations within 14 days of the date they contact deferred inspections at JFK. If their admission period has already expired, the decision to grant extensions will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

To contact JFK deferred inspection to make a request for a satisfactory departure, call (718) 553-3683 or (718) 553-3684, Monday – Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET.

To contact Seattle deferred inspection to make the satisfactory departure request, use the following email address:

Interviews, naturalization ceremonies & biometrics appointments

US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is suspending all routine face-to-face services with applicants at all of their offices, including all interviews and naturalization ceremonies until at least April 1, 2020.

All USCIS field offices, asylum offices and Application Support Centers (ASCs) will not provide in-person services until at least April 1. This includes interviews, naturalization ceremonies and biometric collection appointments. However, emergency services will continue to be provided during this time. If you have an emergency service request, please contact the USCIS Contact Center.

USCIS field offices will send de-scheduling notices to applicants and petitioners with scheduled appointments affected by this closure. They will also send de-scheduling notices to naturalization applicants scheduled for naturalization ceremonies. All applicants will be rescheduled when USCIS resumes normal operations. 
USCIS will also automatically reschedule ASC appointments due to the office closure. Those affected will receive a new appointment letter in the mail. Individuals who had InfoPass or other appointments at the field office must reschedule through the USCIS Contact Center once field offices are open to the public again. 

US consulate and embassy closures

US consulates and embassies are cancelling non-immigrant and immigrant visa appointments, and may be closing or offering limited services for the time being. Emergency visa services may be available at select locations. For information about US consulates and embassies in specific countries, visit COVID-19 Country Specific Travel Advisories.

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