Visas During COVID-19
Updated September 15, 2020
We’ve gotten a lot of questions from our office hours about COVID-19’s impact to USCIS processing and international travel.
We get it -- these travel restrictions can feel very technical. We’re here to help! Legalpad offers a free webinar every two weeks to discuss immigration updates, and we will cover these restrictions in further detail plus answer your questions. You can register for the webinar here.
Q: Is USCIS working right now? Are they currently processing any cases?
A: Yes, USCIS is still processing and approving cases!
- Premium processing has resumed for eligible filings. If your case is eligible for premium processing, you can receive a final decision within 15 days of filing.
- Most USCIS field offices have resumed in-person services. Information on COVID-19 precautions to enter USCIS field offices is available here.
- U.S. Consulates/Embassies have started a phased reopening of visa services. You will need to check the local Consulate/Embassy’s website for specific status of whether the location is opening for visa stamping.
- USCIS has extended the deadline for Requests for Evidence (RFE) responses. For RFEs issued between March 1, 2020 and Jan. 1, 2021, USCIS will accept responses submitted within 60 calendar days after the RFE due date.
Q: Are there any COVID-19 international travel restrictions?
A: Yes. There are three main COVID-19 related travel restrictions. If you are currently in the U.S. and do not have international travel plans, these restrictions do not apply to you. If you are outside the U.S., you may be impacted by these restrictions.
Restriction #1: Non-essential land border entry between U.S.-Canada and U.S.-Mexico is restricted through September 21, 2020, and will likely be extended further. “Non-essential travel” includes travel for tourism purposes (e.g. sightseeing, recreation, gambling, or attending cultural events). Examples of “essential travel” include travel for medical purposes, work, school, emergency public health response, etc. (not an exhaustive list).
Restriction #2: COVID-19 resulted in several Presidential Proclamations that barred entry for people who were physically present in certain countries within 14 days of attempted U.S. entry, including: 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, Switzerland), U.K. and Ireland, plus Brazil, China, and Iran.
The State Department announced that business travelers, students traveling in F, M and J status, and E-1/E-2 treaty traders and investors may qualify for a national interest exception to enter the U.S., even if they were present in the impacted countries within 14 days of attempted U.S. entry.
Restriction #3: The June 22nd Presidential Proclamation extended the ban on immigrant visa issuance and entry (entering as a “green card” holder) through December 31, 2020. It also restricted entry into the United States through December 31, 2020 for H-1B, H-2B, L-1, and certain J-1 categories (plus dependents) unless they qualify for an exception or already have a valid visa or advance parole. The State Department published guidance on how certain people may qualify for the national interest exception to this ban.
Q: How is the COVID-19 situation impacting RFE rates and denials?
A: We are keeping an active pulse on immigration trends, and will continuously update this page to keep you informed. Currently, we have not heard of an increased rate of RFE issuance or denials as a result of COVID-19.
Q: If I am currently in the U.S. on a B-1/B-2 Visa and unable to travel back to my home country due to travel bans, what are my options to extend/not overstay?
A: You’ve got options! You may be eligible to apply for a B extension online or file a paper application to extend your status before the expiration of your B status.
Q: What are extension options for me if I am currently in the U.S. on ESTA?
A: Unfortunately, if you enter the U.S. on ESTA as part of the Visa Waiver Program, you won’t be able to extend or change your status.
There is some good news, though: typically, ESTA is only valid for up to 90 days. Because of global COVID-19 travel restrictions, you can request “Satisfactory Departure” if you are on ESTA and unable to leave the U.S. With Satisfactory Departure, you’ll be able to stay in the U.S. for an additional 30-days after the initial 90-days, plus a possible subsequent 30-day extension. Please see instructions here.
Q: What are the impacts for individuals on TN?
A: If you’re on a TN and in the U.S., you can stay in the U.S. and continue to work for as long as your TN is valid. USCIS is still processing TN extension cases. As long as your extension is filed before your TN status expires, you’ll get an automatic 240 days of work authorization while your extension is pending with USCIS.
If you’ve recently lost your job, you don’t have to leave the U.S. right away! People in TN status generally have a discretionary 60-day grace period to leave the U.S. from their last date of employment–as long as their I-94 is still valid throughout the grace period.
Q: What are the impacts for individuals on J-1s?
A: The Presidential Proclamation restricted entry into the United States through December 31, 2020 for J-1 visa applicants participating in intern, trainee, teacher, camp counselor, au pair, or summer work travel programs and any spouses or children requesting J-2 visas, unless they qualify for an exemption or already have a valid visa or advance parole. The State Department published guidance on how certain J-1s may qualify for the national interest exception to this ban.
If you are already inside the U.S. in J-1, you are not impacted. If you are outside the U.S. without a J-1 visa and want to enter as a J-1 intern, trainee, teacher, camp counselor, au pair, or summer work travel, you will not be able to obtain a J-1 visa stamp in 2020 unless you qualify for an exception.
Q: What are the impacts for individuals currently in the U.S. in E-2?
A: Individuals currently in the U.S. in E-2 status may continue to work and remain in the U.S., as long as the E-2 status is still valid. USCIS is also still processing E-2 extension cases.
Q: I have filed for F-1 OPT after completing my degree. What delays should I expect?
A: USCIS is still processing OPT Employment Authorization Document (EAD) applications. While USCIS processing times continuously change, we’re not aware of processing delays for OPT EADs as a result of COVID-19. However, USCIS has warned of a possible increase in backlogs and wait times across the board.
Q: How does this affect O-1 petitions?
A: USCIS is still accepting all O-1 petitions, which can be filed with premium processing.
Important note: If the O-1 petition is approved as “Consular” because you are currently outside the U.S, you may not be able to get the O-1 visa stamp to enter the U.S. right away if your U.S. Consulate/Embassy is still closed due to COVID-19. U.S. Consulates/Embassies have started a phased reopening of visa services, and you will need to check the local Consulate/Embassy’s website for location-specific status to see if they are accepting O-1 visa stamping appointments. If you are outside the U.S., check out our blog on O-1 visa stamping during COVID-19.
Q: What if I am laid off from work due to COVID-19. What happens?
H-1B, H-1B1, E-1, E-2, E-3, L-1, O-1, and TN may remain in the U.S. for up to 60 days after the employment ends. You have a grace period of 60 days or the expiration date of the underlying status (whichever is shorter). If you are eligible for the grace period, you will need to file a Change of Employer, Change of Status, or depart the U.S. within the 60-day grace period.
Q: How does the situation affect the green card process?
A: USCIS is still accepting both the immigrant petition (I-130 for family-based and I-140 for employment based) and the green card application (I-485).
Q: I already have a green card but have been outside the U.S. for a few months. I can’t immediately travel back because of travel bans. Will this delay jeopardize my green status?
A: Green card holders who remain outside the U.S. for more than a continuous 6 months may face additional questioning when re-entering. If you are outside the U.S. for a continuous 1 year or longer without a re-entry permit, you would risk abandoning your green card.
Q: I don’t see my question here. Where can I ask it?