Making Sense of the U.S. Visa & Travel Changes During COVID-19

Written by German Accelerator

*Updated June 2022

Foreign nationals might be wondering, what is the best way to do business right now in the U.S.? Specifically, what are the best options for traveling or obtaining a visa? Immigration has always been a challenging topic, however, due to the uncertain nature of the global COVID-19 pandemic, this process has become more complex. It has become harder to plan ahead or to know what to expect when expanding to the U.S.

Nonetheless, there are still options for entrepreneurs who aim

  • to travel to the U.S. on a current Visa or ESTA or
  • to procure a new Visa
Photo by Daniel Lim on Unsplash

In a previous blog post, we had outlined the various visa options for German entrepreneurs that are seeking to travel and work in the U.S. As a result of the White House Statement from October 2021, there have been some major changes that are expected to affect international travel.

As quarantine mandates are issued decentralized and differ from state to state, you will have to look into local rules and regulations to get a full picture of what to look out for. To find out more about the quarantine regulations please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. *As of June 12, 2022, the CDC no longer requires air passengers traveling from a foreign country to the United States to show a negative COVID-19 viral test or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 before they board their flight.

Traveling on a Current Valid Visa or ESTA

Traveling With a Valid Visa

Currently, you may enter the U.S. if you are:

  • a permanent resident
  • a student in F-1 or M-1 status
  • a visa holder of a non-suspended visa category (e.g. O-1, E-2) and you were not physically present in one of the countries affected by the travel ban for the past 14 days.

The list of countries affected by the travel ban (as of the date of this article was published) include: China, Iran, European 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, Monaco, San Marino, Vatican City), United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland), Republic of Ireland, Brazil.

If you want to travel directly from a country affected by the travel ban and you are a visa holder of a non-suspended category (e.g. O-1, E-2) or a visa holder of a suspended category (e.g. H-1B, L1, EB-1) with a valid visa stamp when the ban came into effect on June 24, 2020, then you may apply for the ‘national interest’ exception to enter the United States.

This might be a particularly compelling option if you believe you:

  • contribute to the immediate and continued economic recovery of the U.S.
  • work in food chain supply services
  • work in medical care (e.g. research and services)

To apply for the national interest exception you should contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate before traveling. Keep in mind that traveling with a national interest exception on an existing visa, is good for only one entry and for travel within the 30 days after it is approved.

For more information about these regulations visit the U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Germany website.

Traveling With a Valid ESTA

A similar guideline counts for the Visa Waiver Program and the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which allows German citizens to enter the U.S. without a formal U.S. visa. Due to the pandemic, if you have been physically present in one of the following areas currently affected by the travel ban (which includes Germany) in the last 14 days, you may not enter the United States even if you have a valid ESTA.

Currently, there are two options for ESTA holders that intend to travel to the United States from Germany:

  1. You can apply for a ‘national interest’ exception. For example, if you are a business traveler and believe your travel purpose will facilitate the immediate and continued economic recovery of the United States or you work in medical research.
  2. Alternatively, you can enter the U.S. on a valid ESTA if you were not physically present in one of the countries affected by the travel ban (as listed above) for the past 14 days.

It is important to note that traveling with a national interest exception under an ESTA is good for only one entry and for travel within the 30 days after it is approved.

Procuring a New Visa as a German Entrepreneur

To give you an overview of the different visa types that might be interesting for German entrepreneurs, we have summarized various Visa categories and their current status in the table below. Unfortunately, most visas for business purposes are currently suspended. As of now, the suspended categories will not be issued until the end of the year 2020. Nonetheless, it is worth continuing reading, as there are multiple exceptions and potential options for entrepreneurs to make use of.

For more information visit: The Directory of Visa Categories

Exceptions to Suspended H-1B, L-1A, L-1B & EB-1 Categories

There are some exceptions to the current regulations, that may be highly interesting to several visa applicants, especially entrepreneurs. As mentioned earlier, you have the option to apply for the ‘national interest’ exception, if you believe your undertakings are necessary to facilitate the immediate or continued economic recovery of the U.S. or you work in the medical field.

For example, a company transferring an employee with specialized knowledge to the U.S. on an L-1A or L-1B visa could apply for an exemption, if the company is planning to open a new office and this particular employee is necessary to assist this expansion. The new office could be in the national interest, as the company could be providing more job opportunities to Americans. It is worth noting that to apply for this exemption the employee must meet certain criteria, such as a certain number of years of work experience. To find out more about the criteria check the U.S. and Immigration Services website.

Another example would be if you work in the food supply chain industry. You could apply for an exemption if you believe your business significantly contributes to the food supply chain in the U.S. It is all about presenting your best argument and having evidence of why you believe you are eligible.

E-2 Investors Visa

A visa category currently not affected by the ban is the E-2 Investors Visa. To qualify for this category, the entrepreneur must have a substantial amount of money to invest or have already invested in their U.S. business. Germany is one of the many countries that have a treaty of commerce with the U.S. and thus, German citizens are eligible to apply for the E-2 visa.

O-1 Extraordinary Ability Experts Visa

Another visa category currently unaffected by the ban is the O-1 visa. This visa is for individuals with extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, athletics, or arts. This means that you have distinguished yourself in the field and are part of the small percentage that has risen to the top. You can make a good case for the O-1 visa if you have international recognition.

Finally, securing a U.S. visa is not an easy process, especially now due to the changes COVID-19 has brought to immigration procedures. Working with a qualified Immigration Attorney can be essential to achieving a successful outcome and an approved visa. Please be aware that lawyers will charge you for their services.

Disclaimer: This article is not intended as legal advice and cannot replace legal consulting on a case-by-case basis. It is merely a brief and simplified summary of a very complex matter. The information contained in this article is for general information purposes only and will not be checked for currency regularly. German Accelerator will not be liable for any false, inaccurate, or incomplete information presented on this website and for any loss or damage of any kind incurred as a result of the use of this information.