Immigration Regulations and COVID-19

There has been much uncertainty through the summer with regard to international travel, visa services, travel restrictions, and regulatory requirements for F-1 students for the fall semester 2020.  The Office of Global Education feels that most outstanding questions have now been addressed by the various agencies.

Please review the FAQ’s below to understand the current issues and announcements regarding the enrollment of F-1 students at Goucher for the fall semester 2020.  The FAQ’s include information from the guidance issued on July 24, 2020 to clarify how the March 9 guidance applies to continuing and new students for the fall semester.

Is travel advisable from an immigration perspective?

The Office of Global Education  cannot advise you whether to continue staying in your home country or come back to the U.S. for the fall semester; this is a decision for you to make with your support system.  However, we can advise you of the obstacles you may face in attempting to return to the U.S.  Please consider the following factors:

  • Risks involved in international travel as there is confusion around requirements
  • Validity of your F-1 visa and the status of the embassy/consulates in your country
  • Travel suspensions and possibility of a national interest exemption
  • Reduced flights and the related expense
  • Limited designated airports for international flights
  • Quarantine protocol upon arrival (See the Return to Campus Student Information site for further information.)

What travel bans are in effect?

The U.S. has suspended the entry of both immigrants and nonimmigrants who were physically present within the following countries during the 14-day period preceding their entry or attempted entry into the U.S.- ChinaIranSchengen countries in Europe, including United Kingdom, and Brazil.  These restrictions will remain in effect until terminated by the President.

On July 22, 2020, the Department of State announced that national interest exceptions would be made for certain travelers from Schengen area, United Kingdom and Ireland.  Students with a valid visa should bring a printed copy of the announcement, in addition to the regular documents for travel.

The possibility does not apply to China, Iran or Brazil at this time.

I am from Canada or Mexico.  Are there restrictions in place that will prevent my return to the U.S.?

Two Federal Register notices published on March 24, 2020 announced the decision to temporarily limit entry to the United States through land ports along the U.S.-Canada and U.S.- Mexico borders for “essential travel” only. The restrictions have been extended until September 21, 2020.

International students in F-1 status are now considered “essential visitors” and, thus, can travel across the land border.  Ports of entry may differ in their interpretation as to whether accompanying parents may also enter.  We recommend contacting the port of entry to inquire and record the officer’s contact information for future reference.

Travel by air is not impacted by these temporary restrictions.

My passport is expiring.  How can I renew it?

If you are in the U.S., please contact your embassy in Washington, D.C. and/or visit their website to determine the services they are providing and the procedures for renewing your passport.

I have decided to take all online classes from my home country this fall.  Will this impact my F-1 status?

The guidance from July 24 makes it clear that your SEVIS record will remain active.  The comment “Outside the United States due to COVID-19” will be included on your Form I-20 during the SEVIS registration process.

When you are ready to return to the U.S., hopefully for the spring semester 2021, we will send a new Form I-20 with travel signature.  We anticipate that we will send the document electronically to your Goucher email address; however, if necessary, we will express mail updated documents. 

To be clear, since SEVIS records will remain active, students will NOT need to start a new SEVIS record and pay the SEVIS I-901 fee.  In addition, any time that students accrue in F-1 status towards work eligibility will remain.  Students who have already been in status for at least one academic year will be able to apply for Curricular Practical Training or Optional Practical Training upon their return to the U.S.

I remained in the U.S.; can I take a 100% online schedule for the fall semester 2020?

Yes, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program has clearly stated that continuing students who have remained in the U.S. may take all online courses for the fall semester 2020.  This includes students who have remained in active status and are starting a new program of student that is 100% online.  Again, ware hopeful that this accommodation will exist for the duration of the pandemic, but the regulatory guidance may change.

I am a continuing student in my home country and my visa is expiring.  Will I be able to renew my visa?

As of March 20, 2020, the Department of State suspended routine visa services at all U.S. embassies and consulates.  On July 14, the Department of State announced that U.S. embassies and consulates would be entering a "phased resumption of routine services" beginning July 15.  Actual service dates will depend on local conditions, so visa applicants should monitor the website of the intended embassy or consulate.   To find embassy or consulate websites, go to https://www.usembassy.gov/.  The Office of Global Education encourages you to schedule your visa appointment as soon as possible due to anticipated backlogs and delays.

How can I get my Form I-20 signed for travel?

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program, Department of State and Customs and Border Protection have all confirmed that they will accept a printout of an electronic version of a Form I-20 for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency.  Students planning to return to the U.S. should contact the Office of Global Education to discuss their plans.  We will issue a new I-20, which will then be signed, scanned and emailed to you through your Goucher email account. 

I’ve heard that international flights are only allowed to enter at designated airports.  Is this true?

The COVID-19 designated arrival airport restrictions were removed as of September 14, 2020 through a notice published in the Federal Register.  The restrictions had required all flights to land at one of 15 designated U.S. airports if they carried persons who within the last 14 days were present within one of the countries designated in the five country-specific presidential proclamation COVID-19 bans. However, the country-specific COVID-19 proclamations themselves remain in place, subject to specific exemptions.  

I am a new student in my home country and I would like to apply for a visa.  Will I be able to obtain a visa for the spring semester 2020?

The answer to this question depends on the mode of instruction for both the campus as a whole and you as an individual. 

If Goucher is able offer in-person and hybrid/flex courses as anticipated and you are enrolled in at least one course that involves your physical presence in the U.S., your situation will qualify for entry to the U.S.   Thus, you should apply for an F-1 visa. 

If you decide to enroll in 100% online course, your situation will not likely qualify for entry to the U.S. for the spring semester.  We will keep your SEVIS record up-to-date and issue your new Form I-20 for the semester when you are planning to physically enter the U.S.  You will be able to apply for the visa up to 120 in advance of the semester start date and then enter up to 30 days in advance of the semester.

If Goucher moves to 100% online prior to the beginning of the spring semester, you should not enter the U.S. but rather take your classes remotely for the spring semester from home.  Once again, when the situation improves, we can issue a Form I-20 with the appropriate start date and you will be able to apply for your F-1 visa 120 days prior to the semester start date.

I remained in the U.S.; what are the limitations to my enrollment in hybrid/flex and online courses for the spring semester 2021?

As always, you must register for a full course of study and make good academic progress.  Typically, F-1 students are limited to 3 credits towards full-time enrollment in a primarily online mode.  However, the July 24 guidance indicates that students may enroll in a program of study that includes hybrid and online components beyond the regulatory limits.  In other words, you can register for the courses that work best for you despite the mode of instruction.  We are hopeful that this accommodation will exist for the duration of the pandemic, but cannot guarantee such at this time.

What if I have additional questions?

Please contact Karen Sykes (karen.sykes@goucher.edu) with questions about how the guidance applies to your personal situation.