The US is randomly rejecting travelers from Europe with valid visas

The Croatian variant
The Croatian variant
Image: Reuters/Antonio Bronic
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For some Europeans holding US visas, the shortest way to get to the US is from Dubrovnik, Croatia.

As of July 2, Delta operates four weekly direct flights to the Croatian coastal city from New York City, flying vaccinated Americans, cleared for travel to Europe, straight to their Mediterranean vacation, and back home.

But the route has come to serve another purpose: For Europeans who can’t fly to the US directly from countries in the Schengen area—a 26-nation area within the EU where travel is possible without passports—it is the closest flight back to the US, which they can take after spending 14 days in Croatia. On paper, at least.

The Dubrovnik detour

Most of Europe has been banned from direct travel to the US since March 2020, because of Covid-19 restrictions. Travelers who aren’t citizens or green card holders cannot travel to the US unless they have been out of the Schengen area for at least 14 days, irrespective of whether they live and pay taxes in the US, or are tourists.

Balkan countries are outside the Schengen area, so some Europeans have chosen Croatia as a bridge country, but things haven’t gone quite according to plan for everyone. Despite holding valid visas and proof of being out of a restricted area for more than 14 days, some travelers are being denied boarding at Dubrovnik’s airport. They are receiving little explanation as to why, other than it is the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that is not granting them permission to travel to the US.

Boarding denied by the CBP

What is happening appears to be nothing more than a glitch, and travelers who have been denied visa clearance were eventually allowed on later flights, but not without inconveniences that include risking delayed returns to work, or family separation.

Elena, an Italian woman with a valid environmental entrepreneur visa, says she was denied boarding with her daughter on Aug. 18, despite having spent 15 days in Croatia. She estimates there were about 30 people in a similar situation who were denied booking. She was eventually able to leave on a flight two days later, but says some of the people who were denied boarding with her had attempted to board up to four times.

Matteo, a man from Italy who asked that his last name not be used to prevent future difficulty with immigration officials, traveled to Croatia with his wife, Corinne, but although they both had the same visa and had gone through the same route, only he was cleared for departure on Aug. 18. He decided not to board and stayed with his wife, and estimates more than 20 other people were also denied boarding for lack of CBP clearance on the same flight.

When he was eventually able to leave, four days later, he boarded with people in similar situations who had been denied boarding several times—first after they were denied CBP clearance, then because Delta overbooked the flight.

Denise Accocella and Alessandro Onori, a married couple due to travel from Dubrovnik to New York Aug. 30, have been monitoring the situation attentively. They have visited the airport twice already to get as much information possible from the airline and connect with other passengers ahead of their flight. They have tracked dozens of cases, they say, including of families who were separated at boarding.

A spokesperson for Delta said that while visa holders are routinely denied clearance even when there are no travel bans in place, they have seen far more cases occur in recent weeks. Europeans traveling out of Croatia seem to be particularly affected, and without clear information on why the passengers didn’t meet the requirements.

Some of the passengers said they are taking legal action against Delta, as they believe the company took advantage of their more complicated visa status to put them on standby in overbooked flights. They claim that since the responsibility of denied boarding could be passed onto the CBP, Delta could avoid responsibility for compensating the passengers for lost fares. Delta, through a spokesperson, denies the accusation.

“This is layers of silliness”

The CBP said it was not aware of the issue when contacted by Quartz, and said it would look into clearing up the situation.

Joe Leader, the CEO of Airline Passenger Experience Association, an organization that lobbies for air passengers’ rights, believes European citizens leaving the Schengen areas and eventually heading to the US might not have their passport correctly scanned when leaving the Schengen area, even if they request a stamp, because that is not routine for European passports.

The lack of an electronic record delays the time CBP needs to verify the European citizens meet the requirements to travel. As a result, the airline might not have enough time to wait for this approval before takeoff, especially for dozens of people, so passengers are bumped off the flight.

Delta could verify the documents anyway and let travelers board the flights,  then have them screened by immigration authorities in the US, but if then the passenger wasn’t allowed to enter, the airline would have to take responsibility for their repatriation, says Leader.

This hiccup highlight the absurdity of a rule that restricts travel from Schengen area countries, but not from all European countries. “All of this, in terms of blocking Europeans from the United States is ridiculous,” says Leader. “This is layers of silliness…The charades of going to a European Union country that is not in the Schengen zone and being there for 14 days simply to be able to enter the United States is crazy.”

Best practices to get back to the US via a third country

Although not all routes seem to be experiencing the same issues as the one via Croatia, there are a few things European travelers can do to reduce their chances of being denied clearance.

Leader recommends asking for a passport stamp when leaving the Schengen area, as well as ensuring the passport is scanned by the border authorities. His suggestion is to use the border checkpoint for non-EU residents, because it is typically more thorough. Keeping all receipts that can support claims of having been out of the country for the 14 required days is also important, as well as staying 14 nights—not days—a small detail that could lead CBP to deny clearance.

Finally, getting to the airport as early as possible gives airlines more time to clear all immigration requirements, reducing the risk of being stranded.