- The United States banned travellers from South Africa on 25 January due to the prevalence of a new, more infectious Covid-19 variant.
- Since then, several exemptions have been added as part of the US' National Interest Exception protocol.
- South Africans deemed to serve the US' best national interest can apply to enter the country despite the ongoing ban.
- This includes seasonal farm workers, students, au pairs, journalists, and more.
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South African travellers are banned from entering the United States due to ongoing Covid-19 containment measures. Some South Africans are, however, exempt from the ban if their work or studies qualify as a National Interest Exception (NIE).
Shortly after being inaugurated as US President, Joe Biden signed a proclamation prohibiting the entry of travellers from the Schengen Area, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil, and South Africa. This blanket ban, implemented to curb the importation of emerging Covid-19 variants identified in these countries, only allowed for citizens and returning residents to enter the US.
But since first being imposed on 25 January, dozens of NIEs have been added to the proclamation allowing for non-citizens to enter the US. Determined by the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security, these exemptions are classified as exceptional cases which serve the US' national interests.
This includes travellers who provide vital support to critical infrastructure or supply chains, health professionals working on Covid-19 containment, certain academics, agricultural labourers, and national security personnel.
South Africans hoping to enter the US through the NIE protocol will need to apply for an exemption through their closest consulate.
South Africans who fall into one or more of the following NIE categories may be permitted to enter the US despite the ongoing travel ban.
Temporary farm workers (H-2A visas)
The first NIE addition made to US' travel relates specifically to farm workers. Agricultural agencies in the US, fearing disruptions to the planting and harvesting season which relies greatly on skilled South African farm workers and agricultural machinery operators, petitioned the central government to exempt H-2A visa holders from the ban.
This non-immigrant certification, for temporary workers performing agricultural services, allows qualified South Africans to stay in the US for up to ten months. South Africans experienced in operating combines, tractors, grain carts, and trucks are in high demand.
Students and academics (F, M, and certain J visas)
The most recent amendment to the US' NIE list includes students with valid F1 and M1 visas who are beginning or continuing an academic programme which starts on 1 August 2021 or later. These students may enter the United States no earlier than 30 days before the start of their academic or optional practical training (OPT) programme.
The same reprieve is extended to professors and research scholars who hold a J visa as part of a US exchange programme.
Au pairs (J1 visas)
US exchange programmes, which offer entry via the different J visas, have also been included as NIEs. Au pairs who provide care for a minor US citizen – particularly those with special needs – or provide childcare services to children whose parents are healthcare workers assisting with the fight against Covid-19, are exempt from the ban.
Interns and trainees on US government agency-sponsored programmes and specialised teachers in accredited educational institutions are also listed as NIEs.
'Vital support' of critical infrastructure sectors
Travellers whose entry serves the "vital support of critical infrastructure sectors as defined by the DOS or critical infrastructure linked supply chain" can also qualify for NIE admission. "Vital support" is defined as the installation, procurement, maintenance, and essential security training that is necessary to maintain the following supply and production chains:
- Commercial Facilities
- Critical Manufacturing
- Defence Industrial Base
- Emergency Services
- Food and Agriculture
- Government Facilities
- Healthcare and Public Health
- Information Technology
- Nuclear Reactors, Materials and Waste
- Transportation Systems
Journalists (I visas)
The I visa applies to employees in the media, press, and radio sectors who are in the US for journalistic purposes. Foreign media representatives applying for a journalist visa need to prove that they have sufficient financial means to be able to cover their stay.
Journalists will also need to work for an accredited foreign media company and present an official press card to the US consulate.
Pilots and aircrew
Pilots and aircrew travelling for training or aircraft pickup, delivery, or maintenance are also included in the NIE list. This includes certain B1, B2, M1, and M2 visa holders under an aviation-specific National Interest Waiver.
Humanitarian and lifesaving medical treatment
People seeking urgent lifesaving medical treatment in the US – and accompanying close family members – are also included as NIEs. The same exemption applies to humanitarian travel for those providing care for a US citizen.
Medical escorts and legal guardians accompanying a US citizen who is being repatriated will also be permitted entry.
Fiancé(e)s of US citizens and their dependents
Fiancé(e)s of US citizens, who hold a valid K visa, and their dependents are listed as NIEs. On 9 April, the US Bureau of Consular Affairs instructed embassies to restart the processing of K1 visas, which allows a foreign-citizen fiancé(e) to travel to the US and marry his or her US citizen sponsor within 90 days of arrival.