YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — After weeks of worrying about passport delays in the face of impending military moves, Kiyomi Hamada says things at Yokota’s passport office are getting back to normal.
Back in late spring and early summer, that wasn’t the case, said Hamada, who processes servicemembers’ passports at Yokota.
Passport applications that normally take six weeks began backing up in the wake of a new policy requiring more air travelers entering America to carry a passport. The deluge of applications stalled approvals throughout the States.
In Japan, some servicemembers and their families had to wait as long as three months for passports, even as orders for temporary assignments and permanent moves loomed, Hamada said recently.
“It was very stressful,” she said. “During the first three months, [there were] about 130 pending passports. Now, it’s nearly getting normal.”
In the past few weeks, those delays have shortened at overseas offices like Yokota, military officials said. And some overseas offices said they never saw the delays that interrupted business and personal travel at home.
“Actually, it’s a little faster here,” said Benn Simmons, a transportation clerk at Yokosuka’s passport section office.
The delays occurred after a policy change in January that requires all air travelers from Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean and Bermuda to carry passports when entering the United States. That, combined with the upcoming summer travel season, created a backlog of millions of applications.
In recent weeks, senior State Department officials have apologized publicly for the delays. The department has offered ways to expedite the paperwork, and most recently an extra 450 people were assigned to work solely on the problem. Now, they say, most applications are being processed within 12 weeks.
At the U.S. embassies in Seoul and Tokyo, it’s been business as usual. Spokesmen say that processing a tourist passport — the blue booklet that most Americans use when traveling abroad — takes about two to four weeks, the usual time.
Simmons and Hamada mainly process “official” and “no-fee” passports, the booklets designed for servicemembers and their families to provide entry to and from countries based on military orders.
At Simmons’ office in Yokosuka, they also process tourist passports for newborns. Still, some of those applications have been coming back from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo within two weeks, he said.
Officials at Misawa Air Base and also at Yongsan Garrison in Seoul also saw little disruption. At Yongsan, the Army even opened a new passport and immigration section in its Army Community Service building, according to 8th U.S. Army spokesman Maj. Jerome Pionk.
At Yokota Air Base, that wasn’t the case. Starting in the spring, applications started to back up, Hamada said, and at the time she had no idea why. All she knew is that servicemembers with travel orders were waiting anxiously for their passports. Later, she found out the reason.
“When there is confusion in the U.S., it affects us,” she said.
The military does not require its members to carry passports, though it is highly recommended, officials say.
Some temporary duty stations in other countries — especially those countries without a status of forces agreement with the United States — require passports in addition to military orders and identification cards.
Sailors who have liberty in different countries may benefit from carrying a passport, an internationally recognized identification that may avoid confusion in a foreign land.
Plus, military members stationed in Japan and South Korea often vacation in other countries. To enjoy the beaches of Thailand or Bali, you’ll need a passport.
Regardless of the recent delays with passport applications, officials offer this advice: Think ahead. If you are considering life with a passport, begin collecting the paperwork you and your family members will need. When you get orders — permanent or temporary — to another country, find out immediately what you will need at https://www.fcg.pentagon.mil.
If you already have a passport, periodically check the expiration date. Also keep a close watch on how many empty pages are left in the booklet. It’s better to carry a thicker passport than to find out you’ve run out of empty slots for an entry stamp while standing in an immigration line at a foreign airport.
There are three types of passports that servicemembers, military workers and their families typically have:
This blue-covered book allows you to travel to foreign countries and re-enter the United States. The passport is a starting point; some foreign countries also require visas for entry. The tourist passport is processed by U.S. embassies in South Korea and Japan, though some U.S. military bases in both countries offer help with the paperwork and transporting the applications to and from the embassies. The passport lasts 10 years. It costs $82 for children 15 and younger, $97 for adults.
This brown book is for active-duty servicemembers and some civilian government workers who are traveling abroad for the specific purpose of serving the U.S. government. It is required, for example, for servicemembers who are stationed permanently in Germany. This passport is free, but it does not allow travel to and from any countries except those on your orders. You should not use this passport for vacations. These passports are processed in Washington, no matter where you are stationed.
This passport is akin to the official passport, but it is for dependents of servicemembers. It looks like the blue tourist book, but it has a special page inside that denotes travel is approved only in conjunction with a military member’s official duty. It should not be used for vacation. It, too, is processed in Washington.
For more information, go to http://travel.state.gov/passport.