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March 22, 2020

"Do Not Travel": FAQ on The Coronavirus Travel Advisory

Coronavirus: Global Law and Public Policy Advisory
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Introduction

On March 19, 2020, the State Department responded to the continuing spread of COVID-19 by issuing its highest travel alert—a "Level 4 – Do Not Travel" Advisory (Advisory). In it, the Department urges Americans to avoid all international travel.1

The decision appears to be unprecedented,2 and it has raised many questions for Americans and companies with U.S. personnel abroad. Below, we provide answers to some of those questions and additional information about the Advisory's contents.

This information is current as of 8:00 pm EST on March 22, 2020. Since the situation remains fluid, however, we advise readers to consultthe State Department website as well as the websites of the Department of Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for any updates.3

What does the Advisory say?

The Advisory recommends that Americans "avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19."4  Additionally, the Advisory encourages Americans who are currently abroad to either "arrange for immediate return to the United States" or to prepare "to remain abroad for an indefinite period."5  Finally, the Advisory suggests that Americans living abroad "avoid all international travel."6

Why did the State Department issue the Advisory?

The State Department explains that other countries have put up significant impediments to free travel, meaning that Americans may experience serious challenges if they are trapped abroad and unable to return to the United States. The Advisory points out that "[m]any countries are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks and implementing travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines, closing borders, and prohibiting non-citizens from entry with little advance notice.  Airlines have cancelled many international flights and several cruise operators have suspended operations or cancelled trips.  If you choose to travel internationally, your travel plans may be severely disrupted, and you may be forced to remain outside of the United States for an indefinite timeframe."7

Additionally, the State Department also notes that, on March 14, it "authorized the departure of U.S. personnel and family members from any diplomatic or consular post in the world who have determined they are at higher risk of a poor outcome if exposed to COVID-19 or who have requested departure based on a commensurate justification."8  Given these departures, the State Department warns that it may have a decreased capacity to provide services to Americans traveling abroad at this time.9

How does the travel advisory system work?

The State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs regularly produces country-specific travel advisories that warn potential travelers whether they can safely visit certain destinations abroad.

The Bureau generally assigns each country a particular level of risk: Level 1 – Exercise Normal Precautions; Level 2 – Exercise Increased Caution; Level 3 – Reconsider Travel; and Level 4 – Do Not Travel.  Travel advisories can also provide information on the nature and location of the potential threats inside a country.10  It appears to be unprecedented to assign a Level 4 warning to the whole globe.11

Is international travel prohibited?

For the most part, no. The Advisory is just that—an advisory. Anyone considering travel abroad should nonetheless take the State Department's guidance seriously, and the State Department has made important observations about the profound challenges Americans will face returning home at this time.

Other recent constraints will also limit contemplated international travel. The United States has restricted all non-essential travel across its borders with Canada and Mexico (see below).12 The State Department is also cutting back on its passport services, so it may be much more difficult for aspiring travelers to receive or renew a passport.13 Many other governments have taken similar measures to restrict travel in or out of their countries, including shutting down airports, imposing travel restrictions, or completely closing their borders. The State Department's country-specific travel advisories are an important resource to stay abreast of travel restrictions in each country.14

What are the restrictions on travel to Mexico and Canada?

The United States has agreed with Mexico and Canada to restrict all non-essential travel across their respective borders.15 Any travel "considered tourism or recreational in nature" is "non-essential," including "sightseeing, recreation, gambling, [and] attending cultural events."16

"Essential travel," which is exempted from the restrictions, includes travel for medical purposes; to attend educational institutions; to work; for emergency response and public health purposes; for purposes of lawful cross-border trade; for military-related purposes or operations; and for official government or diplomatic reasons.17  "Essential travel" also includes the return to the United States of U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, members of the U.S. Armed Forces, and the spouses and children of members of the U.S. Armed Forces.18

The Department of Homeland Security advises that the restrictions are not intended to apply to supply chains, including trucking, or travel for "essential work or for other urgent or essential reasons," including to "ensure that food, fuel, and life-saving medicines reach people on both sides of the border."19  It is not clear from the face of the restrictions whether they limit cross-border visits to see family.

If I am abroad or need to travel abroad, are there any additional steps I can take?

Yes. The Advisory recommends a number of basic additional steps for Americans who are travelling abroad or who plan to travel abroad:

  • First, the Advisory suggests that international travelers keep up to date, including by visiting the CDC's website. The Advisory also recommends consulting the State Department's website to view individual, country-specific travel advisories, as well as to see information from the relevant U.S. embassy or consulate on entry restrictions, foreign quarantine policies, and urgent health information provided by local governments.
  • Second, the State Department urges all international travelers to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which will alert them to potential emergencies and make them easier to locate.
  • Third, the Department encourages international travelers to "[h]ave a travel plan that does not rely on the U.S. Government for assistance."
  • Fourth, the Department recommends that international travelers "[r]eview and follow the CDC's guidelines for the prevention of coronavirus."
  • Fifth, the Department advises checking with airlines, cruise lines, and travel operators regarding any new developments in travel plans and restrictions.
  • Finally, the Department suggests that international travelers visit the Department of Homeland Security's website to see the latest restrictions on returning to the United States.20

What can and should a company do to support U.S. personnel who are abroad?

A company should develop plans to support business operations and personnel in locations abroad during this health epidemic. It should also provide its employees with routine updates on the steps it is taking to limit disruptions of business operations, as well as full information about additional available support and resources, including with respect to the challenges of working at home, handling increased child care obligations, and limiting overall anxiety. 

A company also should ensure that its personnel stay apprised of the health and travel conditions where they are located. This includes encouraging each American abroad to enroll in STEP so that they can receive timely alerts from the State Department. A company also should provide points of contact within the company, including managers and Human Resources representatives, who can help personnel adjust to current work conditions and understand what resources are available, such as access to medical facilities and health insurance.

Companies should also open lines of communication with the State Department, including the Bureau of Consular Affairs and U.S. embassies, whose mandate includes supporting Americans located abroad, to be prepared to support any U.S. government effort to aid Americans abroad, including, if necessary, repatriation to the United States.

These are uncertain times, and each company should evaluate what measures it should take to limit professional disruptions while making sure to support the health and safety of its personnel abroad.

Will the United States government repatriate Americans who are abroad?

It's complicated. The State Department is conveying that it will handle these issues on a case-by-case basis, but that travelers cannot expect that the U.S. government can help.

On the one hand, the Advisory makes clear that Americans who are abroad should not expect to be repatriated by the U.S. government, and that they should instead make travel plans that do "not rely on the U.S. Government for assistance."21

At the same time, the State Department's website notes that, "[i]n extreme situations," where "there are no commercial transportation options (planes, trains, boats/ferries, etc.) available, and if we have consular officers at the embassy or consulate, and if the conditions permit, we may help U.S. citizens seeking to depart by working with the host government, other countries, and other U.S. government agencies to identify—and in some cases arrange—available transportation."22

Presumably pursuant to that policy, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on March 20, 2020, that the State Department had established a repatriation task force to help bring home the thousands of Americans currently stranded abroad by coronavirus in areas without commercial transportation.23  "We'll track and we'll try to get everybody back just as fast as we can," he declared, noting that the Department would use "all of the tools we can" to do so, including a mix of private, commercial, and military flights.24 News reports suggest that the task force has been charged with "coordinating and providing support for private American citizens stranded overseas; managing requests from posts facing severe travel restrictions requesting transportation assistance to implement Authorized or Ordered Departure; and supporting any evacuation operations of official or private American citizens involving charter or non-commercial means."25

So far, it appears that several groups of Americans have already been evacuated. For example, on March 20, the U.S. Air Force conducted two flights to help bring 89 Americans home from Honduras after it suddenly closed its borders and suspended all international travel.26  Americans have also been evacuated from Morocco and Peru, as well as previously from Wuhan, China, and the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.27

Secretary Pompeo has urged Americans who are stranded abroad to sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) so that the State Department can be aware of their location and situation.28

If the U.S. government does assist in an evacuation, evacuees are generally responsible for repaying the cost of their transportation.29 Reports indicate that the government is following this practice for coronavirus repatriations.30

For additional information on U.S. government-assisted evacuations, please consult the relevant State Department website.31

© Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP 2020 All Rights Reserved. This Advisory is intended to be a general summary of the law and does not constitute legal advice. You should consult with counsel to determine applicable legal requirements in a specific fact situation.
  1. U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs, Global Level 4 Health Advisory – Do Not Travel (Mar. 19, 2020).

  2. See Dan Diamond et al., "State Department Warns Americans: Don't Travel Abroad, Come Home If Overseas," Politico (Mar. 19, 2020).

  3. See, e.g., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19); U.S. Department of State, Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19); U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Coronavirus (COVID-19).

  4. U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs, Global Level 4 Health Advisory – Do Not Travel (Mar. 19, 2020).

  5. U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs, Global Level 4 Health Advisory – Do Not Travel (Mar. 19, 2020).

  6. U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs, Global Level 4 Health Advisory – Do Not Travel (Mar. 19, 2020).

  7. U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs, Global Level 4 Health Advisory – Do Not Travel (Mar. 19, 2020); see U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs, Current Outbreak of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Mar. 19, 2020) ("Many areas throughout the world are now experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks and taking action that may limit traveler mobility, including quarantines and border restrictions. Even countries, jurisdictions, or areas where cases have not been reported may restrict travel without notice.").

  8. U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs, Global Level 4 Health Advisory – Do Not Travel (Mar. 19, 2020).

  9. U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs, Global Level 4 Health Advisory – Do Not Travel (Mar. 19, 2020).

  10. U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs, Travel Advisories.

  11. See Dan Diamond et al., "State Department Warns Americans: Don't Travel Abroad, Come Home If Overseas," Politico (Mar. 19, 2020).

  12. See Department of Homeland Security, Joint Statement on US-Mexico Joint Initiative to Combat the COVID-19 Pandemic (Mar. 20, 2020); Department of Homeland Security, Joint Statement on US-Canada Joint Initiative: Temporary Restriction of Travelers Crossing the US-Canada Land Border for Non-Essential Purposes (Mar. 20, 2020).

  13. See @TravelGov, Twitter (11:32 a.m. Mar. 19, 2020); see also U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs, Passport Operations in Response to COVID-19 (Mar. 19, 2020).

  14. The State Department's Travel Advisories are available at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/traveladvisories/traveladvisories.html.

  15. Department of Homeland Security, Joint Statement on US-Mexico Joint Initiative to Combat the COVID-19 Pandemic (Mar. 20, 2020); Department of Homeland Security, Joint Statement on US-Canada Joint Initiative: Temporary Restriction of Travelers Crossing the US-Canada Land Border for Non-Essential Purposes (Mar. 20, 2020).

  16. Department of Homeland Security, Joint Statement on US-Mexico Joint Initiative to Combat the COVID-19 Pandemic (Mar. 20, 2020); Department of Homeland Security, Joint Statement on US-Canada Joint Initiative: Temporary Restriction of Travelers Crossing the US-Canada Land Border for Non-Essential Purposes (Mar. 20, 2020); U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Notification of Temporary Travel Restrictions Applicable to Land Ports of Entry and Ferries Service Between the United States and Canada (Mar. 20, 2020); U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Notification of Temporary Travel Restrictions Applicable to Land Ports of Entry and Ferries Service Between the United States and Mexico (Mar. 20, 2020).

  17. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Notification of Temporary Travel Restrictions Applicable to Land Ports of Entry and Ferries Service Between the United States and Canada (Mar. 20, 2020); U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Notification of Temporary Travel Restrictions Applicable to Land Ports of Entry and Ferries Service Between the United States and Mexico (Mar. 20, 2020).

  18. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Notification of Temporary Travel Restrictions Applicable to Land Ports of Entry and Ferries Service Between the United States and Canada (Mar. 20, 2020); U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Notification of Temporary Travel Restrictions Applicable to Land Ports of Entry and Ferries Service Between the United States and Mexico (Mar. 20, 2020).

  19. Department of Homeland Security, Joint Statement on US-Mexico Joint Initiative to Combat the COVID-19 Pandemic (Mar. 20, 2020); Department of Homeland Security, Joint Statement on US-Canada Joint Initiative: Temporary Restriction of Travelers Crossing the US-Canada Land Border for Non-Essential Purposes (Mar. 20, 2020).

  20. U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs, Global Level 4 Health Advisory – Do Not Travel (Mar. 19, 2020).

  21. U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs, Global Level 4 Health Advisory – Do Not Travel (Mar. 19, 2020).

  22.  U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs, What the Department of State Can and Can't Do in a Crisis (last updated Aug. 6, 2019).

  23. See Laura Kelly, "State Department Sets Up Task Force to Bring Home Americans Abroad," The Hill (Mar. 20, 2020).

  24. Quoted in Laura Kelly, "State Department Sets Up Task Force to Bring Home Americans Abroad," The Hill (Mar. 20, 2020).

  25. Quoted in Laura Kelly, "State Department Sets Up Task Force to Bring Home Americans Abroad," The Hill (Mar. 20, 2020).

  26. See Siobhán O'Grady et al., "Air Force Evacuates 89 Americans from Honduras After Coronavirus Travel Advisory; States Increase Restrictions," The Washington Post (Mar. 20, 2020); Samantha Bell, "Air Force Evacuates 89 Americans, Including U.S. Women's Football Team, from Honduras," The Washington Post (Mar. 20, 2020).

  27. See Conor Finnegan, "Americans Evacuated from Morocco, Peru, as Travel Bans to Block Coronavirus Strand Thousands," ABC News (Mar. 20, 2020).

  28. See Sam Mintz, "U.S. Starts Some Repatriation Flights for Stranded Americans," Politico (Mar. 20, 2020).

  29. U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs, Information for U.S. Citizens About a U.S. Government-Assisted Evacuation (last updated June 19, 2019).

  30. See Conor Finnegan, "Americans Evacuated from Morocco, Peru, as Travel Bans to Block Coronavirus Strand Thousands," ABC News (Mar. 20, 2020).

  31. U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs, What the Department of State Can and Can't Do in a Crisis (last updated Aug. 6, 2019); U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs, Information for U.S. Citizens About a U.S. Government-Assisted Evacuation (last updated June 19, 2019).

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