Those planning to enter the U.S. from the Schengen Area, United Kingdom and Ireland should make sure they can still travel under the new travel ban exception put in place March 2.

The U.S. Department of State just withdrew its previous guidance on certain foreign nationals seeking to enter the U.S. from these areas. Before March 2, certain people could get a discretionary waiver (National Interest Exception) to these regional COVID-19 travel bans. This included technical experts and specialists, senior-level managers and executives, treaty-traders and investors, professional athletes and their dependents, among others. The National Interest Exception offered travel flexibility for various nonimmigrant workers, including certain B, E, H, L, O and P visa holders and ESTA business travelers.

The secretary of state removed those categories and made a new National Interest Exception. It covers “certain travelers seeking to provide vital support for critical infrastructure.” This change greatly narrows the pool of applicants who may qualify for a National Interest Exception, adversely impacting many business travelers and nonimmigrant workers. However, the guidance notes that no previously issued visas or National Interest Exception approvals will be revoked, and the National Interest Exception criteria for academics, students and journalists has not changed. 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines 16 critical infrastructure sectors:

  • Chemical
  • Commercial
  • Communications
  • Critical manufacturing
  • Dams
  • Defense industrial base
  • Emergency services
  • Energy
  • Financial services
  • Food and agriculture
  • Government facilities
  • Health care and public health
  • Information technology
  • Nuclear reactors, materials and waste
  • Transportation systems
  • Water and wastewater systems

Foreign nationals in the Schengen Area, United Kingdom and Ireland who believe they can show that they will provide vital support for critical infrastructure should contact their nearest U.S. embassy or consulate before traveling to request the National Interest Exception. Students from those areas with valid F-1 and M-1 visas do not need to contact an embassy or consulate. They will automatically be considered for a National Interest Exception to travel.

It is important to note that not all travelers in these areas are subject to the travel bans. U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents and their immediate family members, among others, do not need a National Interest Exception to travel to the U.S.