Understanding the Trump Travel Ban

A timeline of Trump's executive orders, which set country-specific restrictions on the issuance of visas -- otherwise known as the travel ban.

By , J.D.

The "Trump Travel Ban" was actually a series of Executive Orders issued by President Trump that outlined country-specific temporary restrictions on the issuance of visas. The legality of these Executive Orders was challenged in court numerous times, restrictions were added and deleted, and many exceptions and waivers were carved out. All of this made it quite difficult to determine whether these restrictions applied to any one person.

With the election of Joseph Biden, however, most of these bans were lifted. Therefore this article should be referenced for solely historical purposes.

(Note: The security-based, country-specific travel bans described here are different from the COVID-19 health-based travel bans also put into place by the Trump Administration.)

The Travel Ban placed restrictions on nationals of certain countries based on three criteria, namely whether:

  • the country has reliable identity documents and shares identity management information with the United States
  • the country shares relevant national security and safety information with the United States, and
  • the country poses a national security or public safety risk.

For example, a country might be put on the list if it does not issue electronic passports or does not share information regarding lost and stolen passports, with other countries.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also evaluates how freely a country shares information with the U.S. about known criminals and terrorists. It also penalizes countries that take a long time to issue passports to their citizens who are being deported (removed) from the United States.

Exceptions to Who's Affected by the Travel Ban

The restrictions do not apply if you already have a valid visa or green card or other valid travel document. There is no specific exception for visa renewals, but visa renewals in some categories might be eligible for a waiver. There are other circumstances in which you might also qualify for a waiver, if none of these exceptions apply to you. Waivers will be discussed later in the article.

The restrictions also do not apply to people who were already in the U.S. when the travel ban, affecting that individual's nationality, went into effect.

If you are a dual citizen of one country affected by the travel ban and another country that is not affected, you are not subject to travel restrictions if you apply for the visa using the passport of the country that is not affected.

For some countries, the restrictions are applicable only to certain visa categories. For instance, if you're coming from Yemen, you'd only be blocked from getting a B visa, for tourism or business.

Timeline of Travel Bans for 13 Different Countries

Three main groups of countries were affected by the Executive Order restrictions. Some groups have exceptions to the restrictions based on visa type.

The first group has restrictions that were effective as of September 24, 2017. These include:

  • Iran: No issuance of immigrant or nonimmigrant visas, except for students and exchange visitors (F, M, J visas).
  • Libya: No issuance of tourist or business visitor visas (B1, B2, B1/B2); no issuance of immigrant visas.
  • Somalia: No issuance of immigrant visas.
  • Syria: No issuance of immigrant or non-immigrant visas in any category.
  • Yemen: No issuance of tourist or business visitor visas (B1, B2, B1/B2), no issuance of immigrant visas.

Chad was originally in this first group, but was taken off the list in a subsequent Executive Order.

The second group has restrictions that were effective as of October 18, 2017. These restrictions include:

  • North Korea: No issuance of immigrant or nonimmigrant visas in any category.
  • Venezuela: No issuance of tourist or business visitor visas (B1, B2, B1/B2) to employees of the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace; the Administrative Service of Identification, Migration, and Immigration; the Corps of Scientific Investigations, Judicial and Criminal; the Bolivarian Intelligence Service; and the People's Power Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and their immediate family members

The third, and most recent group of countries has restrictions that were effective as of February 21, 2020. These restrictions include:

  • Burma: No issuance of immigrant visas, except Special Immigrant Visas (SIV), which are immigrant visas issued to foreign national U.S. government employees who have worked for the U.S. government for many years or in dangerous jobs.
  • Eritrea: No issuance of immigrant visas, except SIVs.
  • Kyrgyzstan: No issuance of immigrant visas, except SIVs.
  • Nigeria: No issuance of immigrant visas, except SIVs.
  • Sudan: No issuance of Diversity Visas (immigrant visas for winners of the Diversity Visa lottery).
  • Tanzania: No issuance of Diversity Visas.

Consular Officer Determines Whether You Are Eligible for a Waiver

If you are from one of these countries and you need a visa in a restricted category, you might be eligible for a waiver, or an individual exception.

Your waiver eligibility can be determined only if you apply for a visa, and you must meet all the other requirements of the visa. During your interview, you will have an opportunity to explain to the consular officer why you qualify for a waiver; there is no separate process. There are three basic requirements for the waiver:

  • your entry to the U.S. is in the U.S. national interest
  • your entry would not pose a threat to the national security or public safety of the United States, and
  • denying entry would cause you undue hardship.

Waivers are determined on a case-by-case basis, but ordinarily can be considered when the applicant:

  • is renewing a work visa or student visa and returning to the U.S. to resume that activity
  • has "significant business or professional obligations" that would be impaired
  • will be visiting or residing with a close family member (parent, spouse, or unmarried child under age 21) and that family member is a U.S. citizen, U.S. permanent resident, or in legal status on a nonimmigrant visa in the United States AND would experience undue hardship if entry was denied
  • is an infant or young child
  • is a child immigrating through adoption
  • is a recipient of a Special Immigrant Visa
  • needs urgent medical care in the United States
  • is a current or former U.S. government employee, or employed on behalf of the U.S. government (and their dependents)
  • is traveling for a purpose related to designated or non-designated international organizations
  • is traveling on U.S. government business or for meetings with U.S. government officials, or at the request of the U.S. government
  • is also a Canadian permanent resident, applying for a visa in Canada
  • is traveling as a U.S. government sponsored exchange visitor (J1), or
  • is someone whose entry is otherwise justified by "special circumstances."

Though these might seem like relatively generous criteria, in the first year of the travel ban, reportedly only 6% of applicants were granted waivers. (This excludes those that already qualified for exceptions.)

Therefore, if you fall into a restricted category and plan to apply for a visa, be prepared to clearly articulate (in a very short interview) the hardships you would face or the U.S. national interest that will be served by your visa approval.

For example, if you are traveling on behalf of a foreign company that is purchasing high dollar amounts of goods or services from a U.S. company, you might be able to show how your visit is necessary to complete the transaction, and in the U.S. national interest because of the economic impact. If your travel truly involves a life-or-death situation, this might also be compelling. Just keep in mind that the bar for waiver approval is very high, and you must also meet the other qualifications of the visa.

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