COVID-19: How Does the Outbreak Affect Visa Waiver (ESTA) Travelers?
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COVID-19:  How Does the Outbreak Affect Visa Waiver (ESTA) Travelers?

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted travel across the globe.  Many US travelers who entered under the Visa Waiver Program (commonly called “ESTA,” the acronym for the online pre‑authorization system) now find themselves on the horns of a dilemma:  leave at the end of their 90-day authorized stay and thus endanger their own health and potentially that of others, or overstay due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Unlike travelers who enter with visas, Visa Waiver entrants are not permitted to file an application with US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to extend their stay if circumstances change while they are here.  In mid-March, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) began considering a form of extraordinary relief called “Satisfactory Departure” for travelers who are stranded in the United States due to COVID‑19.

What is “Satisfactory Departure”?

Satisfactory Departure is a regulatory provision that allows for additional time if Visa Waiver travelers are unable to leave on time because of an emergency; for example, an unplanned hospitalization or a canceled or delayed flight due to unanticipated conditions such as weather or a worker strike.  Under Satisfactory Departure, Visa Waiver visitors are provided up to 30 additional days beyond the usual 90-day limit.  If the visitor departs within that window, she or he is not considered to have overstayed.  Satisfactory departure is traditionally granted only in very limited circumstances.

How do I apply for Satisfactory Departure right now?

The usual method is to make an appointment at a local USCIS field office to present evidence of the emergency.  However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, USCIS closed all of its local offices on March 18, 2020; therefore, CBP is now accepting applications for Satisfactory Departure at its ports of entry and deferred inspection offices.

Procedures vary by location.  Some CBP offices have specific forms or formats.  Some will entertain applications only within specific time periods before the authorized stay expires; e.g., 3 days, 14 days or 30 days.  Most will accept applications by email, but two offices (Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Raleigh-Durham Airport) still require in‑person applications at the time of this writing.  Travelers who need Satisfactory Departure should contact either the CBP port of entry where they arrived or the CBP deferred inspection office closest to their current location.

CBP will generally require evidence of lawful entry, such as a passport, ESTA approval and admission stamp; evidence of inability to depart before authorized stay expires, such as a previously booked itinerary, flight cancellation notice, or doctor’s letter; and evidence of ability to depart if a Satisfactory Departure period is granted, such as evidence of sufficient funds on account to purchase new airfare or airline notices regarding free ticket changes or refunds.

Should I still apply for Satisfactory Departure even if I will leave as soon as I am able to?

Yes.  It is extremely important to apply for Satisfactory Departure before your authorized period of stay expires.  Any violation can have adverse consequences on any future immigration benefits, including the ability to use the Visa Waiver program at all.  If you require assistance, please contact one of our attorneys.

  • Counsel

    Suzan’s practice focuses exclusively on immigration and nationality law. Suzan represents businesses and individuals in administrative proceedings before the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S. Customs and ...


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