Regulatory Framework For Companies

Business Travel to the United States:
What’s Possible in Covid-19 Times?

The Corona pandemic has led to severe restrictions on business trips to the United States. What many companies do not know is that restrictions have been significantly relaxed, and a visa is generally no longer required for many EU citizens to enter the U.S. (as of October 2020). Sebastian Meis describes how business trips to the U.S. should be prepared. An attorney and partner at Baker Donelson in Atlanta, he advises German companies in the United States.

Mr Meis, entry into the United States has been severely restricted since the outbreak of the Corona pandemic – what is the status quo? 

Meis: Indeed, it was almost impossible for business travelers from the European Union to enter until July 2020. Now this is possible again and we are seeing increased travel activity from Europe into the US. It is therefore by no means excluded or severely restricted, as was the case a few months ago. More and more European companies are sending managers and specialists to their U.S. subsidiaries, for example to take care of adjustments of group-specific IT systems or of inventories – projects that can only be done effectively on-site.

What does this require?

Meis: An exemption (National Interest Exception / NIE) needs to obtained, which is usually granted if the traveling person has, for instance, special know-how which is essential to the subsidiary in the United States. This must be reviewed and established in every single case. The U.S. authorities have  discretion in their decision and the rules or application processes are constantly changing. But regardless of these changes, itis currently much easier to obtain this waiver if the person’s presence is important to ensure the company’s success in the United States. Since end of July, we have worked on numerous cases and have received for the NIE waivers for our clients.

How does the approval process work?

Meis: If the traveling person does not have a U.S. visa, the person has to register online via ESTA – this registration is a condition for a NIE application which must be submitted to the U.S. Consulate General in Frankfurt or the U.S. Embassy via email together with certain documents, e.g., an invitation letter from the U.S. company, a confirmation letter from the German employer and a COVID-19 Health Guidelines Compliance Statement. Based on applications filed in Germany and the Netherlands, these applications are normally processed within four to five working days. Upon receipt of the NIE waiver, the travelers can book their flights.

How long is the exemption valid and for whom does it apply?

Meis: There must be no more than 30 days between the NIE waiver approval and entry into the United States which is important for booking flights. Travelers from the Schengen area, the UK and Ireland can apply. The NIE waiver is valid for the applicant and a corresponding application can also be filed for family members travelling with him/her. All travelers should print and carry the relevant documents with them.

In the meantime, it has been said that there were also restrictions affecting the issuance of U.S. visas.

Meis: Yes, this is still the case and applies to longer stays and certain visa categories (e.g. work and internship visas). Since August 2020, however, certain additional exceptions have been stipulated if the company can justify that the traveling employee is working in an industry the U.S. government considers “essential.” This applies, for example, to transportation and logistics. It is recommended to assess eligibility in advance on a case-by-case basis. It is also worth mentioning, a federal court in California issued a preliminary injunction against the visa restrictions in early October which applies to members of certain trade and industry associations and organizations.

What should business travelers consider regarding quarantine regulations in the United States?

Meis: The NIE rules described before have nothing to do with quarantine regulations but only allow entry into the US. Business travelers should always check with local colleagues or authorities at their destination if and how long they need to quarantine and what measures need to be considered there.