The pandemic continues to create challenges for international travel. When President Biden lifted the country-based travel restrictions on October 25, 2021, it appeared that the new vaccination requirement for travel to the United States would be the standard to allow vaccinated persons to enter the country. Then came the omicron variant.

On November 26, 2021, after South Africa had informed the World Health Organization of the omicron variant, the United States joined other countries in restricting travel for persons who have been in southern African nations in the two weeks before traveling to the United States. The seven countries are the Republic of Botswana, the Kingdom of Eswatini, the Kingdom of Lesotho, the Republic of Malawi, the Republic of Mozambique, the Republic of Namibia, the Republic of South Africa, and the Republic of Zimbabwe. Two days later, U.S. Customs and Border Protection released a directive to airlines with a surprising item: National Interest Exception travel authorizations issued under a prior travel ban are void. Even though NIEs recently had become valid for one year, that no longer applies under the new vaccination requirement policy.

With certain exceptions, such as U.S. citizens and permanent residents, the new reality is that anyone traveling to the United States must be vaccinated against Covid-19, or as allowed in some situations, commit to being vaccinated within two months of arrival. It now seems highly unlikely that an NIE-based option will return if the U.S. restricts travel from other countries based upon new pandemic developments.

The new protocol will be very simple: Vaccination is the only way to enter and remain in the United States. What is not clear, however, is what the enforcement scheme will be for persons who commit to receive the vaccination within two months of arrival. Much like the pandemic so far, that will be an evolving situation.