There is currently a 2.6 million case backlog of visa applications with the State Department, due largely to Covid 19. Embassies are operating with limited staff. While local conditions and restrictions vary, they include lockdowns, travel restrictions, quarantine requirements, and other measures taken by embassies and consulates to stop the spread of the virus. The world, just like the State Department, is fighting against the spread of Covid.
Nearly 50% of the US population is now vaccinated, which is much higher than most other countries. Only a very small proportion of the population of most African countries has been vaccinated. For example, just 0.1% of the citizens of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, have been fully vaccinated. It is not surprising that the Biden Administration has not yet opened our borders.
The first issue is getting a visa.
Visas are required for entry into the U.S. from nearly all African and Caribbean countries. The current processing time for a visitor visa appointment is 999 days in Nairobi, Kenya, 321 days in Lagos, Nigeria, and 342 days in Kinshasa, DR Congo. In the Caribbean, the processing time is 999 days in both Port Au Prince, Haiti, and Kingston, Jamaica. Processing times listed as 999 days indicate only emergencies are being accommodated by Consular Sections. Even if a visa is obtained or was previously granted and is still valid, the traveler may still face travel bans.
In several Presidential proclamations, entry into the United States has been suspended or limited for immigrants and non-immigrants domiciled in the following countries during the 14 days prior to their entry or attempt to enter: China, Iran, South Africa, Brazil, Republic of Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the European Union Schengen area. Individuals physically present in a subject country who are seeking to travel to the U.S. have two options: (1) spend 14 days in a third country not subject to restrictions or (2) obtain a “National Interest Exception” (“NIE”) to the travel ban from a U.S. Embassy.
U.S. embassies and consulates were tasked with determining whether applicants’ proposed trips to the U.S. met the standard of being in the national interest. Department of State guidance allows consulates to issue NIEs to those traveling to provide vital support or executive direction to critical infrastructure; those traveling to provide vital support or executive direction for significant economic activity in the United States; travel due to extraordinary humanitarian circumstances; or travel in support of national security or public health.
The problem is there is no one universal standard for granting an NIE. There are exemptions to the ban. NIE is not needed for U.S. citizens or green card holders or their spouses and single children under the age of 21. Airline and sea crew members, diplomats, and journalists are also exempt from the need to apply for NIE.
Students from restricted countries who want to travel to the U.S. to begin or continue an academic program with a valid F-1 or M-1 visa are not required to contact the U.S. Embassies to obtain individual NIEs to travel. They may enter the U.S. no earlier than 30 days before the start of their academic program.
It is important always to review the relevant U.S. Embassy website for current processing times and local conditions. The State Department website is also an excellent place to learn the requirements for traveling to the U.S. within the next year.