F-1 Travel Restrictions and National Interest Exceptions

Recent Travel Restrictions for F-1 Students entering from Certain Countries and National Interest Exceptions

F-1 students traveling to the U.S. from China, Iran, India, Brazil, South Africa

If you have been granted a National Interest Exception (NIE), it is very likely that you will be able to enter the U.S. on the dates shown in the table below.

Student SituationDate Student can try to enter U.S. with NIE approval and proper documents
New Students with an I-20 Program Start Date of August 16, 2021July 17, 2021
Returning Students July 24, 2021 (30 days before the Fall 2021 start of class)
OPT StudentsPossibly July 24, 2021 (30 days before the Fall2021 start of class)

F-1 Students Traveling from the Schengen Area, United Kingdom, and Ireland

The Department of State’s June 24, 2021 Announcement, COVID-19 Travel Restrictions and Exceptions  does not include the Schengen Area, United Kingdom, and Ireland, in the requirement to have a program begin on or after August 1, 2021.

If you have been granted a National Interest Exception (NIE), it is very likely that you will be able to enter the U.S. on the dates shown in the table below.

Student SituationDate you can try to enter the U.S. with NIE approval and proper documentation
New Student with I-20 Program Start Date of August 16, 2021July 17, 2021
Returning StudentAny date
OPT StudentAny date

Travel Prohibitions and Exceptions

The United States government recently updated the list of countries that an F-1 student cannot travel directly from in order to enter the U.S. Students can find the updated list at Travelers Prohibited from Entry to the United States. The United States government also announced that F-1 Students traveling from the countries on the prohibited list are eligible to apply for a waiver called a National Interest Exception (NIE).  F-1 Students who have an NIE are allowed to travel from a country listed at Travelers Prohibited from Entry to the United StatesIf you are an F-1 student traveling from a country that is NOT on the prohibited list, you are not required to get an NIE.

Eligibility for an NIE

F-1 Students should refer to the two announcements linked below.

  • U.S. Department of State’s May 27, 2021 announcement. Please read the entire announcement and pay particular attention to the following paragraph:
    • Students with valid F-1 or M-1 visas traveling to begin or continue an academic program do not need to contact an embassy or consulate to seek an individual NIE to travel.  They may enter the United States no earlier than 30 days before the start of their academic studies.  NIE eligibility for students who have been present in Brazil, China, India, Iran, or South Africa applies only to programs that begin on or after August 1, 2021. Students seeking to apply for new F-1 or M-1 visas should check the status of visa services at the nearest embassy or consulate; those applicants who are found to be otherwise qualified for an F-1 or M-1 visa will automatically be considered for an NIE to travel.
  • Department of State’s June 24, 2021 Announcement, COVID-19 Travel Restrictions and Exceptions. Please read the entire announcement and pay particular attention to the section below:
    • These three categories of travelers are automatically considered for National Interest Exception (NIE) at the Port of Entry and do not require advance approval of a NIE from an embassy or consulate.
      • Immigrants of all categories (not applicable to Proclamation 10199, which only covers nonimmigrant travel);
      • Fiancé(e)s of U.S. citizens and their dependents (K visas);
      • Students (F and M visas) as described here;
        • New or returning students present in China, Brazil, Iran, South Africa, or India may arrive no earlier than 30 days before the start of an academic program beginning August 1, 2021 or after, including optional practical training (OPT)

How Students can get an NIE

New, Returning, and OPT Students who need to apply for an F-1 Visa:

  • Check the operating status of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate to apply for a visa and find out the specific instructions you need to follow to get an NIE.
  • At your visa interview, make sure you understand what documentation proves that you have an NIE. The U.S. Dept of State announcements linked above state that if you are approved for an F-1 Visa, you should have automatic approval for an NIE. Therefore, the F-1 Visa in your passport could be the only document that you need to show that you have the NIE exception.

Documentation required to apply for a visa if you are eligible for an NIE:

  • Make sure that you have documentation showing that your program or employment will not begin before August 1, 2021. Below are suggested documents depending on whether you are new, returning, or pursuing OPT.
  • New Students: Your Fall 2021 I-20 from George Mason, which will indicate that the program start date is August 17, 2021.
  • Returning Students: The Fall 2021 Academic Calendar from the Registrar’s Office and copy of your Fall 2021 registration.
  • Pursuing OPT: Provide documentation showing that you will not enter the U.S. to begin work before August 1, 2021. It might be helpful for you to provide a letter from your employer that indicates your plan to continue work in the U.S. on or after August 1, 2021. You might be able to enter before August 1, but it is best if the documentation you show to apply for the NIE shows August 1 or later as your continued work date.

New, Returning, and OPT Students who have a valid visa:

When F-1 Students can Enter the U.S.

The U.S. Department of State’s May 27, 2021 announcement states that students “may enter the United States no earlier than 30 days before the start of their academic studies.  This date is different for new and returning/OPT students.

The following documents could help you prove that you are eligible to enter the U.S.

  • New Students: The program start date on your I-20 is August 16, 2021. Therefore, you should be able to enter the U.S. on or after July 17, 2021. Keep your I-20 with you at all times to show proof of your August 17, 2021.
  • Returning Students: The program start date on your I-20 is in the past since you have already started studies. Print out of your fall course registration, the Fall 2021 Academic Calendar, and the U.S. Department of State’s May 27, 2021 announcement. When you get to the airport in the U.S., ask the Customs Official to look at the NEXT SESSION START DATE in your electronic SEVIS record.
  • Students with OPT: Print out of the Fall 2021 Academic Calendar. Provide documentation from your employer that indicates your plan to continue work on or after the day you enter the U.S. Since students with OPT do not have a next session start date, it is not clear what date they can enter, but it is possible that you will be considered a continuing student who should not enter before July 24, 2021.

*Students traveling from the Schengen Area, United Kingdom, and Ireland: See the table above regarding travel dates. Prepare the same documents as listed above and a print-out of the Department of State’s June 24, 2021 Announcement, COVID-19 Travel Restrictions and Exceptions. This announcement includes a statement that travelers from certain areas must have a program that begins on or after August 1, 2021. The Schengen Area, United Kingdom, and Ireland are not included in this statement.

Important Information for All Students:

  • We believe the information above is accurate based on our interpretation of Department of State and Customs and Border Patrol information. However, different airlines and Ports of Entry could have a different interpretation or make a mistake. If you want to use the plan that has the lowest risk due to NIE requirements, enter the U.S. on or after August 1, 2021, whether you are a new, returning, or pursuing OPT. Students who attempt to travel before August 1stmight be prohibited from boarding their flight or denied entry by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol once their flight lands.
  • Before you board your flight, check with your airline to make sure you know any specific requirements.
  • A negative COVID Test is required for all travelers to the U.S. regardless of where they are traveling from. See information at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for details.

Alternative Plan – Entering another country for 14 days before Travel to the U.S.

If you want to enter the U.S. before August 1st, you can try to travel to another country, stay in that country for 14 days, and then travel to the U.S. Students who need to get an F-1 visa should be aware that there could be more difficulties in obtaining an F-1 visa from a country other than their home country.