Please find below my experience traveling on F-1 as a student from India to the US under covid-related travel restrictions.
My name is Vijay and I am a Ph.D. student in Cognitive Science since 2018 in the USA. I traveled to Chennai, India, during the last week of March 2021 to attend to a family situation (I was fully vaccinated by then). By the time I was planning to fly back to the US, a new set of travel restrictions came into place on May 4th, 2021 for non-US-citizens flying from India. When I tried to contact the airline provider with whom I had booked my return tickets to the US, their staff mentioned to me that F-1 holding students such as myself are allowed to enter the US from India. Trusting this information I flew on June 13th, 2021 from Chennai to Delhi where I was supposed to take my next flight; at this time I was still waiting for a response to my National Interest Exception (NIE) request. Only after reaching Delhi, I was informed that the prior information given to me by the airline staff was incorrect. F-1 holding students from India are not exempt from travel restrictions. Several airlines had mentioned the opposite in their websites as I checked during the same timeframe and *this information is incorrect* to my knowledge.
Since I was starting a new summer research opportunity for which I have to be in the US by end of June, I decided to take the next available flight from Delhi to Mexico and quarantine in Mexico City for 15 days before attempting to re-enter the US. Thankfully, I had a bunch of friends who had already reached Mexico City to begin a similar quarantine stay. Their guidance was really helpful to plan and start my quarantine in Mexico City. At the time of my arrival, Mexico did not have any restrictions for travel from India and since I had a valid US visa, I did not have any trouble entering Mexico. Around the 6th day of my stay in Mexico, I received an email from my Consulate approving my National Interest Exemption. This was such a relief! To anyone applying for an NIE, I would suggest sending the email request about a month prior to their planned travel dates as the number of NIE requests and turnaround time have been increasing lately.
I left from Mexico City to the US on the day I received my NIE approval and my port of entry was Houston. Just in case, I carried with me a printed copy of my hotel stay receipts in Mexico, my COVID-19 test report (negative), and a few copies of my NIE approval email from the Consulate in addition to other typically required documents such as my I20 form. The airline staff in Mexico wanted to look at the NIE email copy before issuing boarding passes, but this was the only time I had to show this email to someone. I arrived in Houston as per the schedule and had an ongoing flight from Houston to my final destination. While the immigration process took a little waiting time (~45 mins), the immigration staff were really kind and welcoming to me. I did not have any issues at my port of entry as I believe my National Interest Exemption is already processed electronically (as stated in the approval email). Since I had planned a short layover in Houston, I missed my ongoing flight to my final destination. However, I was able to change my tickets without any hassle to take the next flight leaving from Houston and safely reached my final destination. All through this experience starting in Chennai and continuing, I have been taking stringent precautions to ensure that I'm properly distancing myself and wearing a mask to avoid any further setback; I request others to also please follow the safety guidelines rigorously. As I'm sending across my experience, I have safely reached the US and have completed my self-isolation after getting a covid test again here in the US.
I hope this information is helpful to many others who are facing a similar situation as I did, thanks for sharing this experience and helping us out Rajiv! I really appreciate it. I don't think I will be able to answer questions individually through my contact, hence I would avoid sharing my contact information while sending this post across. Please feel free to let me know if you have further questions, thank you Rajiv.