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URASOE, Okinawa — Americans heading back to the United States this summer need to be sure their passports are up to date, an official at the office of the U.S. Consulate General on Okinawa said.

“At this time of year, we’ll get at least one call or so on the weekend from someone who’s stranded at the airport because their passport has expired,” said Susan Reinert during a recent interview at the U.S. Consulate in Urasoe.

“And they can’t understand why they can’t get a new passport right away,” she said. “People need to think ahead. We’re trying hard to get people to take personal responsibility for ensuring they are prepared.”

Passport renewal can take up to six weeks because the Okinawa office no longer processes them locally, she said. “All passports are being processed in the United States.”

She said military personnel should know they might need a passport to deploy to other countries, even though they did not need one to be assigned to Okinawa.

“There’s been some confusion in particular about some people from the U.S. military not getting the word out,” Reinert said. “We’re trying to make sure that commanders check all incoming personnel to make sure they have their passports.

“It used to be you needed orders in order to get a passport but that’s not required now,” she said. “So we really do encourage unit commanders to make sure” members of their units get passports.

Edward McKeon, minister counselor for consul affairs with the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, echoed her warning. McKeon recently visited Okinawa to brief consulate personnel on passport processing and visa regulation changes.

He said one important change for foreigners visiting America is how non-immigrant visas are processed. The issue is a hot topic for U.S. servicemembers married to foreigners who have not applied for immigrant status, he said.

“If people need visas to visit the States and want to go some time in the summer, they need to get them now,” McKeon said.

Japanese citizens visiting the United States for 90 days or less do not need visas but citizens from other countries do — affecting many foreign women married to U.S. servicemembers.

“Visitors from Thailand and the Philippines must have non-immigrant visas,” Reinert said. “And that population on Okinawa is substantial.”

The Department of Homeland Security began a new program in January to fingerprint and photograph foreign visitors as part of entry immigration checks. Some countries with large U.S. military populations are exempt from the new requirement, but the Philippines and South Korea are not.

In addition, the application process for getting the visas has changed. After setting up a time for an interview, an applicant must complete an online application form available at http://naha.usconsulate.gov and bring it to the interview. The form must be completed online, then printed out.

Reinert stressed that the visa application fee can no longer be paid at the consulate but must be paid via an automatic teller at any local bank. Also, all passports with issued visas will be returned by mail; they no longer will be available for pick-up at the consulate.

Refer to the U.S. Consulate Web site or call 876-4211 for more information.

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