FORT BELVOIR, Virginia — Military families applying for official passports must submit their paperwork no earlier than 60 days, but no later than 45 days from their departure date, said a top travel official, as COVID-19 stop movements are lifted.
The new policy is in place to reduce potential holdups that military personnel, government civilians, and families may experience with their permanent change of station moves to international locations beyond the continental U.S., Angela Johnston, passport services division chief of the Army’s Defense Department Passport and Visa Office, said.
For some locations — like many countries in Southeast Asia — a visa may also be required. If so, those applications should be handed in no earlier than 80 days, but no later than 65 days prior to their departure date.
Also, certain individuals heading to OCONUS locations prior to June 30 — and traveling under an approved stop-movement exemption, or with a granted exception to the policy — should submit their application immediately, if they have not done so, Johnston said.
These new policies are in line with ongoing efforts to lighten potential wait times, Johnston said, adding the deadlines will be enforced at acceptance facilities. Compliance with these timing restrictions will help avoid overwhelming the agency, as the number of PCS moves overseas increase after the stop-movement order is lifted.
Normally during the months of April through July, the Defense and State Departments process roughly 14,000 official, or “no-fee” passports per month. Since the restrictions were implemented, around half have been processed in April and May, Stuart Archer, director of executive travel for the Department of the Army Headquarters, said.
“Although a backlog is expected,” he added, “the combined efforts of the two departments are working to address any backlogs that may develop as the movers in April and May are now shifted to June and later.”
Service members should consult their local passport agents on these guidelines, and comply with guidance contained in the Foreign Clearance Guide for actual passport requirements.
“These processes are established to aid in metering the flow of passport applications to the Department of State and their Special Issuance Agency,” Archer said. “The SIA re-opened their doors for limited processing, and are working diligently to process the applications they have on hand with limited staffing.”
Although faced with a potential backlog, the Defense and State Departments have taken on similar snags in the past, but previous pileups have never occurred during a global pandemic, Johnston said.
“We’ve never faced a worldwide crisis like (the COVID-19 pandemic), but we’re working through this together,” Johnston said.
Before COVID-19, passport processing was operating smoothly, she said. Once the pandemic hit, many government agencies took precautionary measures to stem the spread of the virus.
This presented a unique challenge for government agencies amid stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions. These new daily operating procedures challenged everyone from the State Department all the way down to local passport acceptance facilities, Johnston said.
For now, government officials have eased back on travel restrictions outside of selected areas, like places outside of COVID-19 hotbeds, and for individuals with extenuating circumstances, such as extreme hardships, being mission essential, and humanitarian reasons.
But these passport exceptions quickly piled up, as much of the State Department was still shut down. The requests for exceptions quickly exceeded the State Department’s ability to issue the passports, she said, especially as they worked on low staffing.
In other words, if everyone expedites a passport application then nobody gets to be expedited and the system is broken, she said.
“It’s like a factory. Once something is done outside the norm, you create the potential to slow everything else down,” Johnston said.
As the State Department comes back online, and a backlog of passport applications roll in, DoD travel officials will continue to work with the State Department, Johnston said.
“The State Department is just coming back online, literally going from nothing to something,” she added. “If we all follow the rules, we could be successful in softening the blow through these when it comes to delays, especially families packing their household goods and getting their children in and out of school.”
However, if a family is stuck waiting on a few pieces of paper, it can cause a lot of anxiety and frustration, she said, especially if they are moving from one country to another.
“Our No. 1 goal is to take care of our service members and their families during their PCS moves by ensuring an expeditious obtaining of their family travel documents,” Archer said.