Students from China, Iran, Brazil and South Africa are allowed to visit the US this fall

Foreign students from China, Brazil, Iran and South Africa will be exempted from the remaining travel bans imposed during the coronavirus pandemic, opening up the possibility of a significant rebound in international student enrollment in U.S. schools this fall.

The US State Department announced in an online update on Monday that students and academics as well as journalists and some other groups of people from these countries are allowed to enter the US with an appropriate visa.

Last summer, the Trump administration made similar exemptions for students and others from the UK, Ireland and Europe.

The spin-offs are under what the State Department calls a “national interest exemption,” which means the government has determined that it is in the best interests of the United States to let these people in.

US embassies and consulates have slowly resumed visa services in large parts of the world after ceasing operations in March 2020. They say they give priority to family members of U.S. citizens, diplomats, and those involved in responding to the pandemic, followed by students, temporary workers, and a few other groups.

International enrollment at American colleges and universities collapsed last fall when hundreds of thousands of students were stranded overseas, unable to obtain new visas, or unable to travel if they already had the correct documentation. Visa records show that the number of students with F-1 or M-1 visas, including those in colleges, professional programs, and K-12 schools, fell 18% to 1.25 million, while the visa records for newly enrolled students, 72% has fallen many times over.


Select a coverage from the WSJ Education Office on the state of schools and learning curated by Office Manager Chastity Pratt and emailed to you.

Chinese students make up about a third of all international students enrolled in US schools. Students from India, the second largest country of origin, are subject to standard protocols for Covid-19 testing but were not excluded from traveling to the United States during the pandemic. Brazil is the ninth largest country and Iran is No. 13 according to the Institute of International Education, which supports global studies and tracks international enrollments.

Uncertainty about visas and travel expenses weighed heavily on schools this spring as they tried to plan for the upcoming school year but couldn’t predict how many foreign students might be able to move into dormitories and sit in actual classrooms instead of taking classes take online, from home.

International students and academics with exchange visas can only attend classes if their programs start on or after August 1st. Therefore, the summer school is still not an option for them.

Under current regulations, any traveler coming to the US from abroad must submit a negative Covid-19 test within 72 hours of arrival. Biden’s government has announced that it will not develop a federally required vaccination certificate, although many colleges and universities are requiring vaccines so students can attend next fall.

A growing number of colleges across the country are requiring students to get Covid-19 vaccinations before returning to campus. However, politics is sparking a debate about whether companies and institutions such as schools can make vaccines a condition of participation. Photo: Northeastern University

On Tuesday, the Biden administration announced that it would restore a policy that the Trump administration had abandoned that would expedite the processing of visas and other immigration applications. The policy, known as prior deference, instructs immigration officers to approve a visa or other extension if the original application is approved and other circumstances have not been changed.

Under former President Donald Trump, extensions were rated as new applications, resulting in significantly slower immigration processing and higher rejection rates. US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that runs the legal immigration system, is funded almost entirely by fees it collects on citizenship, green card, and visa applications. The agency ran out of money and had considered taking two-thirds of its employees off last summer.

Write to Melissa Korn at [email protected]

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