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What You Need to Know About International Travel in 2021

Immigration Law

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Summer is right around the corner and COVID-19 vaccinations are increasing across the United States. The airlines are expecting a huge increase in travelers this summer. Its already beginning according to the TSA March average traveler numbers have tripled compared to 2020. But what does international travel look like in 2021 and what do all international travelers need to be aware of?

Check Your Destination!

Be sure to be familiar with the rules for international travelers at your destination, as they can change rapidly without much notice. Most destinations require negative COVID-19 tests for travel but the timing of those tests is not standard. Some require a test 24 hours before travel, some require a week. In addition, some jurisdictions allow rapid tests, however most do not. The last thing you want is to be quarantined at your destination when you arrive.

It is also a good idea to review the in-country restrictions to make sure you can do all everything you have planned. Most tourist destinations have had to adapt significantly, and a common rule of thumb is reservations and pre-bookings are required for most activities.

Finally, be sure to check the visa requirements of your destination. Travel has been minimal for the last year and immigration rules can change rapidly. In addition, consular operations worldwide are slow so if you need a visa you should start the process as soon as possible.

Mask Up

One of President Biden’s first actions was to enact a federal mask mandate that applies to all air travel. Be prepared to be masked for the duration of your flight, with limited exceptions for drinking and eating.

Covid-19 Test to Get Back to the U.S.

Don’t forget that you need a PCR or rapid test to get back to the United States three days before you travel. Local testing can be varied but most areas have hotels or private companies providing tests for tourists. Note that there will likely be a cost involved for the test. The airlines are required to enforce this rule and they will not hesitate to remove individuals from a flight who do not have test results.

Passport Renewals

Check your passport expiration date. Do it now, seriously. You likely have not travelled for a year, so dust it off and check that expiration date, and while you are at it, check your family members passports as well. You need to check because passport renewals are severely delayed with the Department of State. Current passport processing is 10-12 weeks, expedites are 4-6 weeks and emergency renewals are very limited in number and scope (i.e. life or death). Appointments at passport agencies are difficult to come by so check your passport!

If you don’t have a U.S. passport but your document is getting close to the expiration date contact your local embassy immediately. Global passport issuance is a mixed bag with some countries unable to issue new passports but potentially able to provide extensions at embassies, while some countries are still closed for consular services.

On a side note – check your driver’s license as well. State rules on extensions vary so if you are using your license for internal US travel make sure it is valid and compliant with REAL ID.

Green Card Renewals, Replacements, and Emergency Travel

What if you have a permanent resident card? Check its expiration date. If it is within six months of expiring you should prepare to file a renewal immediately. Green card renewals are taking some time with current reported processing times as 7.5 to 18.5 months. The USCIS has helped out permanent residents who file to renew before their card expires by providing an extended validity statement on the I-90 receipt notice to allow individuals with expired cards, but valid renewals to travel freely – just remember to take that receipt notice with you!

If you can’t find your green card or it’s been eaten by your puppy (true story) you should apply for a replacement immediately. Processing is lengthy and is currently taking nine to 20 months for replacement green cards. Replacement I-90 applications do not receive the same travel authorization as renewals so be warned.

But what if it’s an emergency and you need to travel but can’t find your card or it’s expired? Contact the USCIS office immediately to arrange emergency issuance of an I-551 which is a temporary stamp as evidence of your status in your passport to allow travel.

What If you have a pending case and you can’t leave? With the influx of Adjustment of Status cases in October of 2020 many individuals are waiting for delayed Travel Authorization. If it is a critically important travel then you should take a completed I-131 application to your local USCIS office to obtain emergency travel authorization.

Contact us if you need to know more about emergency travel options.

What if I’m Stuck Abroad?

We are still living in uncertain times so travelers are advised to be flexible with their travel plans and consider back up plans should situations change. Travel insurance is recommended and has not increased in cost during the pandemic. United States embassies and consulates for the most part are operating on a limited basis but will always to try assist U.S. citizens abroad.

I’ve Got a Green Card But I’ve Been Stuck Abroad For More Than a Year?

You may need to obtain a special returning resident visa to re-enter. Please see our guide here on retaining permanent residence.

What if I Need a Visa to Get Back to the United States?

If you need a visa stamp to return to the United States after temporary travel be sure to plan ahead and be as flexible as possible with your travel plans. The State Department announced a phased reopening of consular services in July of 2020. The process is still ongoing with the majority of embassies without regular processing. Visa appointments remain scarce, and priority is given to urgent travel, students and backlogged immigrant cases.

Also, be aware that the health-related travel restrictions are still in place for China, Iran, Brazil, Ireland, the UK, and the Schengen area. Any travel through the restricted areas requires a specific National Interest Exemption (NIE) from a U.S. embassy. Contact us if you need to know more about NIE processing.

For more information about 2020 travel restrictions please review our summary here.


Tully Rinckey is able to assist people and organizations world-wide with domestic and international immigration matters. Attorney Michael Freestone is well versed in representing large corporations and is able to navigate complex immigration issues and analyze the facts and recommend the best course of action.

Contact us today to schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys at (202) 787-1900, or click the link below to book a consultation online.

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