U.S. visa-related issues due to COVID-19

Due to the outbreak of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, President Trump issued a Proclamation suspending entry of certain immigrants and nonimmigrants who were physically present within China, excluding Hong Kong and Macau, 14 days prior to their entry or attempted entry into the United States.

The ban went into effect at 5:00 p.m. ET on Sunday, February 2, 2020.  On February 11, 2020, the World Health Organization announced an official name for the disease that is causing the current outbreak of coronavirus: COVID-19.

Many U.S. visa holders and visa applicants are impacted by the Novel Coronavirus travel ban.  Additionally, the U.S. State Department has placed U.S. diplomatic staff and their families in China on “authorized departure,” meaning they are permitted to voluntarily leave the country amid the coronavirus outbreak.  The authorized departure notice applied to “all non-emergency U.S. government employees at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and the consulates general in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Shenyang.”  The decision is one step away from a more serious “ordered departure” evacuation, which is involuntary.

On February 8, 2020, the U.S Mission to China website issued a notice stating that “[a]s of February 10, 2020, regular visa services at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and the U.S. Consulates General in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenyang are suspended.”  The notice also provided that the U.S. Embassy and Consulates currently have very limited staffing and may be unable to respond to requests regarding regular visa services.  However, those who have urgent travel that they believe may qualify for an exemption under the Presidential Proclamation dated January 31 are asked to visithttps://ustraveldocs.com/cn/index.htmlto submit an emergency appointment request, likely under the link entitled “Apply for Expedited Visa Processing,” though no specific instructions are provided.

Recommendations: The scope of the President’s January 31 proclamation limiting the entry of certain individuals due to the novel coronavirus is a drastic measure that has not been seen in recent history.  As a result, it is difficult to anticipate the actions that will be taken by the U.S. Mission to China in connection with consular processing.

Such a travel ban has affected many U.S. visa holders and visa applicants whose business or personal travels took them to China over the lunar new year holiday.  Some clients are “stuck” in China for longer than they originally anticipated.  Others run into the unfortunate circumstance of needing their U.S. visas renewed overseas prior to re-entering the United States.  

U.S. visa holders and visa applicants in China who truly believe they have need for “urgent travel,” should first submit an emergency appointment request as instructed by the U.S. Mission to China website, above. Please also note thatDHS issued supplemental instructions for inbound flights with individuals who have been in China.

Chinese nationals who need to renew their visas overseas and have not traveled back to China since the outbreak of COVID-19 have to make a difficult decision of where to apply. (It is uncertain whether the U.S. Mission to China will be honoring appointments currently being made for April and May 2020, since there is no indication that U.S. government employees are returning to work in China any time soon.)

Traditionally, visa applicants should not renew their U.S. visas in a third country unless they have ties or strong, justifiable reasons to be in said country.  Without such reasons, consular officers will usually send such clients back to their home countries for adjudication of their U.S. visas.  Visa applicants who wish to apply for their U.S. visas in a third country should reach out to the U.S. Embassy or Consulates in those countries first to determine whether a “third country national” visa application would be accepted under the current circumstances.  Clarification of the procedure will save time and hassle on the part of the visa applicant before going this route.  

It is possible that some posts may not respond, at the risk of setting a precedent of accepting a large number of “third country national” applications.  In that case, if an applicant has no other alternative, it may be worth a try to go ahead and apply in a third country, but the applicant bears the risk of having the application rejected.

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