Student looking at flights.


Campus & Community

What new U.S. travel rules mean for foreign students, scholars

6 min read

Mark Elliott and Martha Gladue reflect on efforts to support global community

The U.S. government’s new travel restrictions for 28 European countries amid the global COVID-19 pandemic went into place over the weekend. The restrictions limit travel from these nations to the U.S. and will affect a number of students and scholars across Harvard’s Schools and international centers, as well as staff at the University’s offshoots in Europe and the U.K. The Gazette spoke with Mark Elliott, vice provost for international affairs, and Martha Gladue, director of the Harvard International Office (HIO), to learn more about what the University is doing to serve the needs of its international student body at this difficult time.


Mark Elliott and Martha Gladue

GAZETTE: What do students and scholars need to know about the restrictions?

ELLIOTT: President Trump issued a proclamation on March 11 which suspends entry to the United States for 30 days for most immigrants and nonimmigrants who have been in, or traveled through, the 26 countries that constitute the European Union’s border-free Schengen Area in the past 14 days. [On March 14, the Trump administration added the United Kingdom and Ireland to the restricted list.] The restrictions are identical to those issued for China and Iran in January and February, respectively, but not as strict as the regulations for travelers returning from South Korea. The bottom line is that anyone reentering the U.S. from these locations should plan to self-isolate for 14 days after their return.

GAZETTE: So are there any who are exempt?

ELLIOTT: I would note that the proclamation for travelers from the E.U. does not apply to U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, to the immediate family members of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, with some conditions, or to certain other individuals as stipulated in the proclamation. Taken together, the ensemble of travel restrictions does, however, affect a very significant portion of the Harvard community, both our 5,000 international students — who represent some 25 percent of all degree-seeking students at the University — and international scholars and postdocs, of whom we also host over 5,000. The burden on these individuals, who, like the rest of us, must deal with the anxiety and information overload relating to COVID-19, is compounded by the fact that they must cope with this fast-changing situation in a foreign environment and, for many, in a foreign language as well.

GAZETTE: Can you talk a little more about the complications for foreign undergraduates?

ELLIOTT: Following the decision to go to online instruction and to close undergraduate residential housing, many international students were already faced with difficult decisions — in some cases complicated by visa issues — about whether to return home or to remain in the United States. Martha’s team at the Harvard International Office, together with the Office for the Vice Provost for International Affairs and partners across Harvard’s Schools, have been working around the clock to find solutions for each student who comes to us with concerns about returning home or, in other cases, working out a good plan to be able to stay here on campus.

GAZETTE: What is the University doing to help other Harvard affiliates worldwide who may be affected by current travel regulations from the U.S. government?

ELLIOTT: Together with previously existing CDC recommendations and restrictions on travel imposed by governments around the world, the March 11 proclamation also affects Harvard students, scholars, and employees who are currently abroad and who face similarly difficult decisions as to whether to return to the U.S. at this time. Our office, along with the HIO, School departments, and the various international and area studies centers, have been working to provide all possible assistance. In many instances, we refer people to Global Support Services, which has been actively in touch with all registered travelers; their website is a great resource. I should add that Harvard College’s Office of International Education has been directly in contact with all College students currently studying abroad to help them adjust their plans for the remainder of the semester.

GAZETTE: What advice is the HIO giving students who wish to return home to one of the nations on the U.S. government’s current COVID-19 restricted travel list?

GLADUE: In this time of stress and uncertainty, we recognize that many of these students want to be at home with their families. We suggest first confirming flights with their airlines, as the current travel situation is extremely fluid. In addition, the travel website of the Harvard International Office has important information about the proper documents students will need for when they return to the United States, such as ensuring that they have a valid travel signature before they leave the country. Following the March 11 proclamation, the U.S. Department of State issued broader warnings for worldwide travel that go beyond the scope of the proclamation, including a global Level 3 health advisory: Reconsider Travel. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a Level 3 warning for Europe: Avoid Nonessential Travel. Harvard College is considering requests from students who are from locations with CDC Level 3 warnings for COVID-19 and those from travel-ban countries to remain in campus housing. Students in other Schools should continue to work with their School officials for more specific guidance and ongoing support. Students who remain on campus will participate in virtual learning, just like those who have left. Harvard will make every effort to provide support for students who remain, though they should understand that on-campus activities and interactions with fellow community members will be severely limited.

GAZETTE: Should international students be concerned about the status of their student visas? What about international scholars?

GLADUE: HIO has received guidance from the federal government that it intends to be flexible with regard to student visas, since their programs were not intended to be taught online. The legal immigration status of international students is not in jeopardy, providing they continue to make progress in a full course of study. Visiting scholars from overseas should work with their departments regarding any accommodations that need to be made to allow them to continue teaching and research. If students and international scholars have any questions or concerns to this end, they should be in touch with their HIO adviser.

Interview was edited for clarity and condensed for space.

This story was updated on March 14.