Off Duty

Military travelers: Avoid extra passport fees and apply now

State Department officials are advising military families to allow plenty of time to renew or apply for passports, in light of a surge in passport applications.

The wait time for standard processing of passports is six weeks, compared to four weeks last year, said Ashley Garrigus, a spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs. Expedited service will get a tourist passport in three weeks, but it costs an extra $60.

While the warning about delays applies to the general public, "the military and their families are an important audience for us, and we want to be sure our messages are reaching them," Garrigus said. As the summer approaches, many military families are preparing for permanent change-of-station moves, and some are planning vacation travel. Service members who receive overseas assignments and their family members authorized to accompany them are eligible for no-fee special issuance passports; there are procedures the departments of defense and state have for this process.

But those stationed overseas should also have a regular tourist passport, which requires a fee, for personal travel.

Although the no-fee passports may take less time, because there are fewer people seeking them, it's a good idea to apply for or renew any travel document as soon as possible. So regardless of whether they’re getting the no-fee passport or the tourist passport, families should allow plenty of time for the passport to be processed.

The current surge is expected to continue through 2018. It's the result of the 2007 Western Hemisphere Initiative, which requires U.S. citizens to have passports for travel to and from Mexico, Canada, Central and South America and the Caribbean starting in 2009. In 2007, the State Department experienced an unprecedented surge in passport applications and issued more than 18 million passports as a result of that initiative. Now millions of people are renewing those passports, which expire after 10 years.  

As the 10-year mark approached, Garrigus said, "We anticipated the surge, and made plans. There are a lot of processes in place. Employees are working overtime to make sure it's running smoothly." The department hired extra employees and are continuing to hire more but officials want to make sure people are aware of the potential delays, Garrigus said.

"Military families should make sure if they need a passport, apply early and make sure other family members have a passport." She noted that some countries require that travelers’ passports not be withing six months of expiration have at least six months of validity left in order for that traveler to be allowed to enter their countries.

Some of the circumstances military families should think about include children who don't yet have a passport; passports that are expiring soon; and relatives expecting to travel overseas to visit military members stationed there. Garrigus advised families to also think about unexpected emergencies which could require travel to and from overseas.

And retirees and others who travel overseas frequently for leisure are no doubt checking their passport's expiration date.

For more information on applying for passports, visit the State Department's website or call the National Passport Information Center toll-free at 877-487-2778.

Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at kjowers@militarytimes.com.

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