Tips for Traveling in Uncertain Times
INTRODUCTION: This is an edited version of the "Fall 2001 Travel Extra" that was distributed on December 3, 2001 to international students and scholars at Binghamton University, State University of New York. The Travel Extra is published twice a year by Binghamton's Office of International Student and Scholar Services, Division of Student Affairs. Each new edition reflects the latest information available on immigration regulations. The Fall 2001 edition has been extensively updated to reflect travel realities post-September 11, 2001 and features a table of contents for easy access to the material. We have prepared this general version in the hope that the information may be useful to international students and scholars at other colleges and universities in the United States. To learn more about programs and services for international students at Binghamton, we invite you to visit our web site, http://isss.binghamton.edu
1. SHOULD I TRAVEL?
Whether or not to travel post-September 11, 2001 is a personal decision. Students whose U.S. visas have expired and who will need to apply for new U.S. visas abroad should anticipate longer waiting periods to obtain a new visa and closer scrutiny of their visa documents. It is advisable to check with the U.S. consulate or embassy, or its web site link: http://travel.state.gov/links.html where you will apply for the visa BEFORE leaving the United States to determine that particular post's policies and procedures. You should start the visa process at the earliest possible time upon your arrival back in your home country.
Males between the ages of 16 and 45 from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen who will need to renew their U.S. visas while abroad will be required to undergo FBI security checks that may lengthen the processing time for their visa applications by as long as thirty days. Any student in this category is strongly advised not to travel abroad at this time. You will likely not be able to obtain a new U.S. visa in a short enough period to be able to return to school to begin the Spring 2002 semester.
Many new and current international students who have been abroad since September 11 have reported that they have been successful in obtaining student visas, and have encountered no unusual difficulties at immigration inspection upon their return to the United States.
While there is much proposed immigration legislation in Congress, new laws that would establish new requirements for international students are not anticipated until later in 2002. However, the Executive Branch of the Federal Government (which includes the Department of State and the Immigration and Naturalization Service) can put in place new regulations without Congressional approval. Therefore, any student who feels uncomfortable or concerned about their travel plans may prefer to cancel those plans. No one can predict the future with any certainty.
2. BEFORE LEAVING THE UNITED STATES
I-20 OR IAP-66
I-94 ARRIVAL/DEPARTURE CARD
COLLEGE OR UNIVERSITY ID CARD
LETTER OF CERTIFICATION
3. TRAVEL WITHIN THE UNITED STATES
Many students think that their passport and visa documents are only needed when traveling abroad. WRONG! If you are planning a trip within the United States by car, bus, train or airplane, to U.S. cities near or far, it is essential that you have your passport and visa documents with you. Since September 11, there has been heightened security not only at all border crossings, but also at bus terminals, train terminals, and airports throughout the United States. Police from multiple agencies--federal, state and municipal--are patrolling these areas. People may be stopped and questioned randomly. Therefore, students are urged to be sure to have their passport, visa documents (I-94 card and I-20 or IAP-66), and student ID card with them for ALL distance travel, even travel within your state. In addition, be sure that the back page of the I-20 or IAP-66 has a current authorizing signature. If you are applying for a change of non-immigrant status, visa petition or EAD card, be sure to carry your INS receipt notice as well, which proves that you have an application pending with the Immigration Service. A person without valid travel documents can be arrested, threatened with deportation and taken into INS custody.
4. U.S. VISA POSTS THAT ARE NO LONGER ACCESSIBLE
Any student who is traveling outside the United States whose U.S. visa has expired will need to renew it at a U.S. visa issuing post abroad before the student can return to the United States. In most cases, the visa application will be filed in your home country. Its important to note that holiday periods are extremely busy times at visa issuing posts, due to large numbers of travelers, holiday closings, and reduced staff. Also, in the event of any protests, threats, or terrorist attacks that are judged to be threatening to U.S. embassy or consulate personnel, government officials at those posts may temporarily close or alter their operational hours.
The U.S. Department of State (DOS) has announced a temporary freeze on non-immigrant visa applications at its visa processing posts in Canada and Mexico, which took affect on November 16, 2001. U.S. visa offices in Canada will not accept non-immigrant visa applications from persons currently resident, working or studying in the United States, but will continue to book appointments for persons resident, studying, working or visiting in Canada. Previously scheduled appointments will be honored except in certain cases where they have been specifically canceled by phone. U.S. Visa posts in Mexico will continue to process previously scheduled appointments, but are not scheduling non-immigrant visa applications from non-residents of Mexico.
The U.S. Embassy in Paris has announced that it will only accept applications for non-immigrant visas by mail. Students are no longer able to go in person to the embassy and get a visa, but must apply by mail while in France. Delays in processing should be expected. They will not renew by mail A, B, C, D, F, G, J, M, Q, and R visas (A and G visas can get renewed at the Department of State) from persons whom are physically outside of France, nor visas for persons whom are physically neither in France nor the United States. For more information, access the Embassy in Paris's Web site at http://www.amb-usa.fr.
5. WATCH YOUR WORDS!
Last month, two international university students were escorted off an airplane at the airport near their school and were closely questioned by legal authorities. Passengers became concerned and notified security officials when the students began to ask questions about the flight time, the engine, and other matters about the flight. It turned out that one of the students suffers from motion sickness and was worried about the possible turbulence in this type of aircraft, and how long it would be in the air relative to his medication for air sickness. They were both quite "innocent," and allowed to continue their trip. However, it caused a serious delay in the travel plans of all the passengers, and great anxiety, as you can imagine, for the students and all the passengers. These students were NOT part of any particular ethnic, cultural or religious group which would have 'targeted' them, so one cannot look at this situation as discrimination or "racial profiling." People around them who overheard their questions of the flight attendants were just frightened, and the airplane personnel had to respond.
This incident is a good example of why it is best to be cautious and discreet in your conversations while traveling.
6. U.S. IMMIGRATION REQUIREMENTS IF YOU ARE LEAVING YOUR SCHOOL PERMANENTLY
International student advisors are often asked what the immigration requirements are if a student will no longer be continuing at his or her current school, either because the student is returning to his/her home country, or is beginning Practical Training, or because the student is going to begin study at a new school.
Regardless of your plans, retain your old I-20s (or IAP-66s)! These forms represent your immigration history in the United States and should be kept in a safe place as you would any important document. In addition, be sure to let your current school's International Student Office know that you are leaving.
The U.S. Immigration Service process for transferring your F-1 status from your current to a new school is the responsibility of the new school's International Student Office. Therefore, it's important that you follow your new school's instructions for reporting to the International Student Office at the beginning of your semester there.
Students who will be ending their studies in December but have no plans to apply for practical training (F-1), academic training (J-1) or continue at a new school or in a new field or level of study, or seek a change of non-immigrant status, must depart the United States within sixty days of completion of their academic program if they are in F-1 status, or within thirty days if they are in J-1 status.
7. APPLYING FOR A NEW VISA AT A U.S. CONSULATE ABROAD
Remember when you applied for your U.S. visa the first time? Applying for a new visa to replace the one that has expired in your passport requires you to present similar documentation.
The State Department has prepared two information sheets about student visas on its web site that may be useful to you as an international student. They may be obtained at http://travel.state.gov/foreign_student_visas_handout.html and http://travel.state.gov/what_consuls_look_for.html
FBI security checks are now required for males between the ages of 16 and 45 from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. The FBI security checks are likely to lengthen the processing time for visa applications by as long as thirty days.
Students who are from countries that have been determined by the U.S. Secretary of State to be sponsors of international terrorism--Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya, Sudan and Cuba--should anticipate extremely close review of their visa documents and a high likelihood of visa denial.
VISA APPLICATION REQUIREMENTS
You will also need to show proof of financial support, binding ties to your home country which you have no intentions of abandoning, and that you plan to return to your home country upon the conclusion of your studies. Some U.S. consulates will ask you how you plan to use your U.S. education in your home country. Many consulates will ask you to present copies of your academic transcripts to prove that you have been maintaining student status in the United States. and that you have been making satisfactory progress in your program. Plan to have copies with you, but do not present it to a consular officer unless specifically asked to do so.
WHERE AND WHEN TO APPLY
There have been significant staff reductions and increased workloads at many U.S. consulates abroad. The holiday periods are also peak travel periods. Some consulates may be temporarily closed or have undertaken heightened security measures due to concern over terrorist threats. It is possible that some U.S. consulates may chose not to accept visa applications except from residents of that country. Therefore, you may wish to contact the specific consulate you plan to visit PRIOR to your departure from the U.S, to be sure that they will accept an application from you.
In ALL cases, apply for your visa AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE! Consult the appropriate consulate by phone, fax or web site to ascertain visa application procedures and requirements and approximate processing time.
8. STRATEGIES FOR A SUCCESSFUL RE-ENTRY INTO THE UNITED STATES
You should expect to go through both U.S. Immigration and U.S. Customs at the U.S. port of entry. You may also be required to go through a pre-inspection procedure at certain airports abroad.
If you will travel abroad during intersession, you are encouraged to have with you a letter from your school that confirms you have maintained valid status. You are also advised to have your current college or university ID card with you as back up identification. However, when you give your documents to the INS inspector at your U.S. port of entry or pre-boarding checkpoint, you should initially present only your passport, I-94 card (which was distributed on the airplane), and signed I-20 or IAP-66. The letter of certification and school ID card are meant to be used only for "supporting documentation" purposes, if you are asked additional questions or asked to produce additional documentation.
A U.S. immigration official who is presented with more documents than is customarily required might become suspicious, so you are well advised to show only your passport, I-94 and I-20 or IAP-66. Then you have the comfort of knowing that you have additional supporting documentation with you if needed.
Expect close scrutiny of your documents. Answer all questions politely and briefly. Do not offer any information that goes beyond the scope of the question asked you.
In certain cases, if there is some problem with your documents, you may be issued a 30-day entry on your I-94 card and issued a form I-515, usually with instructions to see your international student advisor. Examine your I-94 card carefully as you leave the immigration booth. F-1 students and J-1 students should have their I-94s marked "D/S," which means Duration of Status, along with a stamp indicating the date you entered the U.S. If an expiration date is written on the I-94 instead of "D/S," and you are in F or J status, go to your school's International Student Office as soon as possible.
Anyone who is denied admission at a U.S. port of entry should be very cautious about arguing with the immigration official. You may risk being issued "expedited removal," which now entails a five-year bar on admission to the United States. If you are denied admission, first try to contact your school's International Student Office for assistance, but also make it known to the Immigration Official that you are willing to withdraw your application for admission to the country rather than be subject to expedited removal.
9. STAYING INFORMED WHILE YOU TRAVEL
Much is being reported in the national and international media regarding the aftermath of September 11, and proposed federal laws and regulations that may have an impact on foreign nationals coming to the United States. If your college or university has been providing updates to students via e-mail or on the internet, try to stay up-to-date on immigration news by checking those resources periodically.
10. KEEPING YOUR VALUABLES SAFE WHEN YOU TRAVEL
The following information on laptop computer security is also applicable for other items of value such as briefcases and carry-on bags while you are in domestic or international travel status.
Items left unattended for even a very brief period have become a premium target for theft. Every traveler should remain on constant alert as they traverse through all airports. Here are some common examples of methods used by thieves to separate you from your belongings.
One method involved the use of security x-ray machines. The first thief precedes the traveler through the security checkpoint and then loiters around the area where the carry-on luggage had already been examined. When the traveler places his laptop computer or bag onto the conveyer belt of the x-ray machine, the second thief steps in front of the traveler and sets off the metal detector.
While the traveler is being delayed, the first thief removes the traveler's laptop computer or bag from the conveyor belt just after it has gone through the x-ray machine and quickly disappears.
Another method of theft can occur while the traveler is walking through a crowd of people in the airport terminal. The traveler, who may have a laptop computer or small bag on top of his or her roll bag is preceded by the first thief. Just as the traveler gets around the crowd of people, the first thief stops abruptly, causing the traveler to stop abruptly. When they stop momentarily, a second thief, who had been following just behind them, quickly removes the traveler's laptop computer or small bag from the roll bag and disappears into the crowd.
All travelers, both international and domestic, are urged to be alert to the above methods used in stealing valuable items and always be mindful of any abrupt diversions during your travels. Report any losses immediately to the authorities. Keep serial numbers, make, and model information of your laptop computers, or of any items of value, separate from the item so you can give precise information to authorities if the items are stolen.
11. SALES TAX REFUNDS?
Students sometimes ask if it is possible for them to receive a refund of the sales tax they paid for goods and services in the United States upon their departure. In the U.S., sales tax on goods and services is set by each of the fifty states, and state entities (such as cities and counties), not by the U.S. government. Each state and state entity determines what the sales tax will be (always a percent of the purchase price) and what items will and will not be assessed a sales tax.
Therefore, it is not possible for an overseas visitor to obtain a refund of the sales tax for a purchase made in the United States upon their departure. The best "official" explanation comes from the U.S. Customs Service, which is reprinted below. Go to: http://www.customs.gov/travel/visi.htm# for additional information.
"Foreign visitors to the United States frequently confuse the state sales tax with the value-added tax (VAT). The state sales tax is a small tax on purchases or services, calculated at the time of purchase, which individual states assess and which the U.S. federal government neither determines nor receives. The VAT, on the other hand, is a national tax commonly applied in foreign countries that is included in the actual sales price rather than at the time of purchase. The United States does not have a VAT, and the federal government cannot refund state sales taxes.
State taxes are generally not charged to diplomats or employees of some international organizations who have been issued a tax-exemption card. This card must be presented at the time of purchase in order for sales taxes to be waived.
Also, many states do not charge tax on items shipped out of state. Ask about state sales-tax policies in the state where you make your purchases."
About The Author
Ellen H. Badger has been the Director of the Office of International Student and Scholar Services at Binghamton University, State University of New York since 1986, where she supervises programs and services for more than 900 international students and scholars.
The author acknowledges the following individuals whose information has been included in this and previous editions of the Travel Extra:
Patricia Burak, Syracuse University