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What will the future of international travel look like? Here's what a US state department rep had to say

Sept. 02, 2020
8 min read
Midsection of businessman holding passport and smart phone at airport
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The world of international travel looks very different today than the beginning of the year. With the coronavirus pandemic continuing, many countries and states continue to impose restrictions on visitors. And even if you wanted to head outside the U.S. and found a destination that is welcoming Americans, you might run into additional problems, as passport offices continue to offer limited services, and Global Entry enrollment locations remain closed through at least Sept. 8.

One of the most frequent questions we get from readers is some version of, "When will we be able to travel outside the U.S. again?"

And while there's no definitive answer to this yet, we did tackle this topic and many others on our most recent Future of Travel webinar, where Brian Kelly, TPG's founder and CEO, was joined by Ian G. Brownlee, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Read on for some of his insights, and scroll to the bottom for a full recording of the session.

When will international travel resume?

During the webinar, we received dozens of questions about the resumption of international travel — not only for Americans looking to travel abroad but for foreign visitors entering the U.S. And unfortunately, there's just no way to know. When asked by Brian specifically about travel between the U.S. and Europe, Ian simply said (tongue-in-cheek), "I am unwilling to prognosticate. My crystal ball isn't working."

So what goes into a decision like this? Is it reciprocal, where we would need to start welcoming other countries before they start allowing U.S. residents in?

Not so.

"This is an extraordinary health issue. The blockage ... on EU [European Union] citizens, people coming out of the Schengen countries and the UK, those are executive orders that President Trump signed back in February and March, barring people from coming in. There's conversation about whether we ought to end these executive orders in the United States, and the EU has similar corresponding orders barring people from coming in and compelling people into quarantine ... but it is not a strictly reciprocal thing. It is the public health authorities on both sides of the Atlantic determining what can safely be done to reopen international travel."

We (naturally) received a number of questions during the webinar about these orders, including some pushing back on whether the health authorities should have the absolute authority here. "Everybody is eager to see us get back to something closer to a normal situation," Ian said, "But nobody wants to trigger a second wave. Nobody wants to see a surge in infection as a result of putting lots of people on airplanes."

He went on to say that until the health authorities say that "if it could be done this way, it could be done safely," he doesn't see a lot of movement toward a restoration of international travel — in spite of the long-term impact on the travel industry.

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So are Americans currently banned from traveling outside the Us?

There's been a lot of confusion regarding what's allowed (and not allowed) related to international travel, especially with the state department lifting its "do not travel" advisory in early August and the CDC changing its 14-day quarantine recommendations a couple of weeks later. When asked whether Americans are truly banned from international travel, Ian said this:

"If we leave North Korea out of the equation here, the answer is no, you are not banned. We were recommending against international travel. We were following the lead of the public health authorities — the CDC — from mid-March until the early part of August in terms of recommending against international travel because of the risk of COVID-19."

Of course, that doesn't mean the floodgates have opened for travel. "We're still urging people to exercise a great deal of caution," Ian went on, and to help in making informed decisions, he highlighted the resources available on the travel page of the state department. This site includes details on everything from getting a passport to signing up for STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) to COVID-19 information.

Speaking of passports, what's the update there?

Tetra Images/Getty Images
Is the backlog of passport applications gone? (Photo by Tetra Images/Getty Images)

Of course, one of the key responsibilities of the U.S. Department of State is issuing passports to Americans, and the coronavirus pandemic has impact these operations significantly. In fact, the department paused all but essential services in mid-March and didn't begin reopening until June. This has created a huge backlog of passport applications — both new and renewals.

Fortunately, progress is being made.

"It's taking 10 weeks or so to get [new applications] turned around at the moment," Ian said. "We are ramping up our passport operations and hoping to reduce that 10 weeks down to a bit closer to the normal time. Prior to the crisis, we were pointing at 6 or 8 weeks" — though naturally the near total shutdown of operations created a massive pipeline.

So if you're thinking about applying for a passport, is now a good time to do so? According to Ian, yes. "Why not apply now? The thing is good for 10 years."

You can view current details on passport processing on the state department's website, and as of last Friday Aug. 28, all applications from March and 82% of the applications received in April, May and June have been processed — though there are still nearly a million awaiting issuance. Fortunately, if you're one of them, you can easily check your passport status online.

RELATED: Everything you need to know about getting your child’s passport

Are there ways for non-US citizens to get here?

Here at TPG, we've heard many stories of individuals separated from loved ones due to the ongoing travel restrictions — be it a family member or a significant other without authorization to enter the U.S. Under normal circumstances, entrance to the U.S. is simple when coming from a visa-waiver country. But of course, these aren't normal times.

So is there anything one can do to enter the U.S. from abroad?

"It's possible to get what's called a national interest exception to that [executive order] bar," Ian said, "But generally, traveling to be with a loved one would not qualify" — going on to highlight examples of what would. One that he gave? A K-1 nonimmigrant visa for your fiancé(e). In fact, at the end August, the state department authorized its locations around the world to begin processing K-1 visa applications, as long as it's safe to do so from a health perspective.

However, he was quick to point out that the state department ultimately determines your eligibility for a K-1 visa or any other visa that would allow entrance to the United States.

Many readers have asked about utilizing a third, transit country to successfully enter the United States. While Ian didn't give this a resounding stamp of approval, he did indicate that it could be possible. However, "It's complicated," he said. As an example, he pointed out the current situation with Mexico, where there are more restrictions entering the U.S. at the land border crossing than there are via a flight from Mexico City (MEX).

And (of course), these policies are always subject to change — so booking a flight to the Bahamas, quarantining there for 14 days, and then flying to the U.S. might work today, but there's no guarantee it will next month or even next week.

Full recording of the webinar

Of course, these weren't Ian's only insights during the webinar. We also covered topics like dual citizenship, what the state department can (and can't do) to help U.S. citizens abroad and some of Ian's under-the-radar spots in Central America, where he's spent a large chunk of his career.

Check out the full recording here:

“The Future of Travel with Brian Kelly” is a series of live events looking ahead at what’s in store for the travel industry as it begins to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. Join Brian as he interviews top experts and company executives on a range of topics, including traveler health, cleanliness measures, loyalty programs and what it all means for the traveling public.

For recordings of past sessions, please visit the following links:

Featured image by Getty Images/Maskot