When will US lift travel restrictions for Indians? US Embassy official Don Heflin answers
With the new academic session starting in US schools and colleges in August, it is time for the last-minute scramble for Indian students as the situation has become more challenging owing to issues regarding travel restriction, Covid-19 vaccinations etc. In an exclusive interview to Hindustan Times' Aditi Prasad, minister-counsellor for consular affairs in US Embassy New Delhi, Don Heflin, gave a clear picture of when the United States can lift travel restrictions for India, whether Indian students will need a second vaccination after reaching the United States etc.
On travel restrictions
At present, no one can travel from India to the United States if they have been in India in the last 14 days. There are exceptions for American citizens, students and those who can prove their travel to the US as of national interest. "It is hard to predict when the travel restrictions will be lifted. But one signal for India will be to look for the lifting of the restriction from Europe's Schengen area, which was placed under travel curbs before India. Once those countries come out of restrictions, India can expect to see the lifting of the US travel ban," Don Heflin said. The Schengen area comprises 26 European countries including France, Germany, Italy, Denmark etc.
Watch: HT's Aditi Prasad speaks to Don Heflin on India-US travel, visa restrictions
Not getting visa appointments?
Don Heflin said that the embassy is working towards increasing the number of visa appointments and more will be opened in July. But how will the July visa appointment help if the classes start in August? "There is no need to panic. Schools will let you come late. Try to reach by August 25. If that is not possible for any reason, then contact the department concerned," Heflin said. The second wave of the pandemic in India delayed the appointment process in India, but the embassy has already opened 45,000 visa appointments and is aiming to achieve the pre-covid number of visa appointments.
Will you get vaccinated again if you have got Covaxin in India?
As Bharat Biotech's Covaxin is yet to receive a nod from the World Health Organization, this question has been raised. The minister-councillor said the United States, as yet, has no vaccine requirement. It only requires an RT-PCR test report but schools, universities are following their own guidelines regarding vaccination. "When you come for a visa interview, we won't ask you whether you are vaccinated. Airlines won't ask you whether you are vaccinated. immigrant officials won't probably ask you about this either," Heflin said adding that vaccines are widely available in the US. But the single-point guideline will be to check with the college and also the CDC website, Heflin said.
Here are some additional specific questions regarding US travel and visa requirements
Can a green card-holding Legal Permanent Resident maintain their status and travel to the United States if they have been in India for more than one year due to Covid restrictions? What steps should they take?
A permanent resident (called lawful permanent resident or LPR) must return to the United States within one year of departure to maintain permanent resident status. There is currently no change to the requirement that LPR(s) maintain their status. We encourage you to review the information on our website for additional detail and application instructions for a re-entry permit or returning resident visa.
Can individuals in the United States with valid F-1 visas and approval for Optional Practical Training status travel to India, then return to the United States in a timely manner? What should they do to prepare for their travel?
Given the current demand for visa appointments and COVID-19 related restrictions, we cannot guarantee a student’s timely return to the United States following short-term travel to India. Students with valid F-1 or M-1 visas, including those with active OPT approval, who are resuming their programs in the United States on or after August 1, 2021, do not require a National Interest Exception (NIE) before travelling to the United States from India within 30 days of their programme resumption date.
How have the US Embassy and consulates in India been impacted by Covid-19? If you are only processing visas for emergency cases, how do you prevent this from negatively affecting Indians aspiring to work in the United States?
The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns in India have caused delays in visa processing. The embassy and consulates resumed processing visas, focusing first on returning workers and now students, as soon as conditions allowed. Please note that H-1B workers in India who hold valid visas may be eligible for a National Interest Exception (NIE) from Presidential Proclamation 10199. To date, we have processed thousands of NIEs for qualified returning workers.
Are H-4 minors with lapsed visas eligible for interview waiver processing if their H-1B parent is currently in the United States and their H-4 parent holds a valid visa?
Yes. We resumed limited interview waiver processing for certain categories of visas, including H-4s. There are some H-4 visa holders who plan to attend school in the United States on F-1 visas.
Is there a provision for these individuals to change their status and prepare for study without travelling to India for the visa interview?
We encourage you to contact US Citizenship and Immigration Services for information regarding the planned change of status within the United States.
Are F-2 derivative relatives of F-1 students currently in the United States permitted to travel to join them? What timing and National Interest Exemption waivers should they bear in mind?
F-2 visa holders must be approved for a National Interest Exception prior to travel to the United States; the blanket waiver for F1 students does not apply to F2 derivatives. Please refer to our website for information on the National Interest Exemption process: https://in.usembassy.gov/visas/national-interest-exception-frequently-asked-questions/
How does the visa and travel process differ for F-1 PhD students or others with independent or flexible programs without a set start date? Are there limitations in travel dates? Is a National Interest Exemption required?
Students who are starting new programs should refer to their I-20 for their official “program start date”. Students with valid F-1 visas and active SEVIS status can enter the United States up to 30 days prior to a program resumption date that is August 1 or later. You should work with your school to confirm your specific resumption date.
Do fully vaccinated students need to quarantine in the United States?
Please consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for the latest information on quarantine requirements upon US entry. According to current guidance, fully vaccinated individuals do not need to self-isolate upon entry.
Hindustan Times received many queries regarding the US travel and visa restrictions from its readers/viewers including from Smriti Sharma, Avi Seth, Asha Khatri, Shiven Panya, Shweta Chhajed, Rashmi Bogapur, Dr R Jeevakumar, Haseena Begum, Maneshker Mathivanam, Ved Garg, Shashwat Kumar, Sandeep, Geetha Sundar, Ashwin Kumar, Sravanthi Kuthuru, Pradeep Kumar, Ankit Hatalkar, Rishi Kesh among others.