FAQ: Visas during COVID
We’ve gotten a lot of questions from our office hours about COVID’s impact to USCIS and travel.
Q: Is USCIS working right now? Are they currently processing any visas?
A: First and foremost: USCIS is still processing and approving cases. There have been 4 notable changes that have been implemented because of COVID:
- USCIS has temporarily suspended premium processing. Cases filed after March 20, 2020 will be reviewed with regular processing, which can take months, depending on the visa status requested. You can look up current processing times on the USCIS website.
- USCIS has suspended routine in-person services, like green card interviews and biometrics appointments, until May 4, 2020.
- The Department of State has suspended routine visa services at all U.S. Embassies and Consulates. This meaningful for individuals who need to get new visa stickers in their passport–even if USCIS has approved your visa petition and you have an approval notice, you still need to get that visa sticker to enter the US.
- USCIS has extended the deadline for Requests for Evidence (RFE) responses for RFEs issued between March 1, 2020 and May 1, 2020, USCIS will accept responses submitted within 60 calendar days after the RFE due date.
How is the COVID-19 situation impacting RFE rates and denials?
A: We are keeping an active pulse on immigration trends, and will continuously update this page to keep you informed. Currently, COVID-19 is still an emerging situation and we have not heard of an increased rate of RFE issuance or denials as a result of COVID-19.
Q: If I am currently in the US on a B1/B2 Visa and unable to travel back to my home country due to travel bans, what are my options to extend/ not overstay/violate any rules?
A: You’ve got options! You can apply for a B extension online or file a paper application to “change your status” before the expiration of your B status.
Q: What are extension options for me if I am currently in the US on ESTA?
A: Unfortunately, if you entered the US on ESTA as part of the Visa Waiver Program, you won’t be able to extend or change your status.
There is some good news, though: typically, ESTA is only valid for up to 90 days. Because of global COVID travel restrictions, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is now considering “Satisfactory Departure” for people in the U.S. on ESTA who are unable to leave. With Satisfactory Departure, you’ll be able to stay in the US for an additional 30-days after the initial 90-days.
If you want to use the Satisfactory Departure benefit, contact either the CBP port of entry where you arrived, or the CBP deferred inspection office closest to your current location. Procedures to apply can vary based on the CBP office.
Q: How do the current delays in processing affect new J-1 applications?
A: As we mentioned earlier, the Department of State has temporarily suspended routine visa services at all US Embassies and Consulates because of COVID.
If you are outside the US and haven’t gotten your J-1 visa sticker yet, you won’t be able to get your J-1 visa stamp until visa services resume. The State Department has a J-1 FAQ on their website for more information.
Q: What impact will this have on people currently in the U.S. on TN status?
A: If you’re on a TN and in the US, you can stay in the US and continue to work for as long as your TN is valid. USCIS is still processing TN extension cases.
For most visa types–including the TN, O-1, and B-1–as long as your extension is filed before your TN status expires, you’ll get an automatic 240 days of work authorization while your extension is pending with USCIS.
Premium processing is currently suspended, but filed TN cases can be upgraded to premium processing once this option resumes.
If you’ve recently lost your job, you don’t have to leave the US right away! TN visa holders generally have a discretionary 60-day grace period to leave the U.S. from your last date of employment–as long as your I-94 is still valid throughout the grace period.
Important note: Effective March 21, 2020, travel between U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada land borders will be temporarily restricted for all non-essential travel. The restrictions will remain in effect until April 20, 2020.
Q: What are the impacts for individuals in E-2?
A: Individuals currently in the U.S. in E-2 status may continue to work and remain in the U.S., as long as the E-2 status is still valid. USCIS is also still processing E-2 extension cases. Premium processing is currently suspended, but filed E-2 cases can be upgraded to premium processing if/once this option resumes.
Q: I have filed for an OPT after completing F-1. What delays should I expect? If delayed significantly, should I stay in the US until I receive work authorization? Would this violate any rules?
A: USCIS is still processing OPT Employment Authorization Document (EAD) applications. While USCIS processing times continuously change, we’re not aware of processing delays for OPT EADs as a result of COVID.
Q: How does this affect new O-1 petitions not yet filed?
A: USCIS is still accepting new O-1 petitions.
These cases will need to be filed with regular processing. At the time of this publication, O-1 processing time is about 6-8 months to receive a decision from USCIS. When premium processing resumes in the future, filed cases can then be upgraded to premium processing to receive a decision within 15 days after the premium processing upgrade.
Q: How do the current delays in processing impact O-1s already filed?
A: USCIS is still reviewing already filed O-1 petitions, though premium processing for all visa types is temporarily suspended
If you filed your O-1 petition with premium processing before March 20, 2020 and USCIS sent you a receipt notice confirming premium processing, USCIS will still try to process these cases within 15 days of filing.
If your O-1 petition was filed after March 20, 2020, it will take 6-8 months to receive a decision from USCIS under regular processing. When premium processing resumes in the future, your case can then be upgraded to premium processing.
Important note: Even if the O-1 petition is approved, if you are currently outside the U.S, you won’t be able to get the O-1 visa stamp to enter the US because US Consulates and Embassies have suspended routine visa services. Once visa processing resumes, the O-1 visa stamp can be requested.
Q: How does this affect current O-1 petitions where a Request For Evidence (RFE) has been received?
A: USCIS is still reviewing filed O-1 petitions and responses to RFEs!
If the petition was submitted before March 20, 2020 with an accepted premium processing request, USCIS will try to issue a decision within 15 days of receiving the RFE response.
If the RFE was issued between March 1, 2020 and May 1, 2020, USCIS has extended the deadline for RFE responses because of COVID. USCIS will accept these responses submitted within 60 calendar days after the deadline listed on the RFE notice.
Q: If I have an O-1 and I am currently outside the U.S. and not able to travel back, can I renew my O-1 from another country? What should I do if the consulates are currently closed in my country?
A: If you are currently outside the U.S. with an expired O-1, you can file your O-1 petition with USCIS as a “Consular” request. Consular filings mean that if/once USCIS approves the O-1 petition, you will still need to get an O-1 visa stamp at a U.S. Consulate/Embassy before you can re-enter the U.S. You need a valid O-1 visa stamp to enter the US.
Unfortunately, there is a temporary suspension of routine visa services at all U.S. Embassies and Consulates. This means Consular requests for O-1s is not an option right now.
Q: How does the situation affect new green card applications? I plan to start a green card application process soon.
A: USCIS is still accepting green card applications!
However, in-person services (like green card interviews) have been temporarily suspended through at least May 3, 2020 to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Q: I already have a green card but have been outside the U.S. for a few months. I can’t immediately travel back because of travel bans. Will this delay jeopardize my green card status?
A: Green card holders who remain outside the U.S. for more than a continuous 6 months may face additional questioning when re-entering. If you are outside the U.S. for a continuous 1 year or longer without a re-entry permit, you would risk abandoning your green card.
Q: If I filed a I-131 a few months ago, how does the current USCIS situation affect this?
A: The I-131 is an application to apply for advance parole or a reentry permit, and generally requires you to submit biometrics.
For cases that require completion of biometrics, USCIS has temporarily suspended all biometrics appointments due to COVID-19. When USCIS resumes normal operations, they will automatically reschedule appointments for people that need to submit their biometrics.