CHIEVRES, Belgium - Months can go into planning the perfect vacation, but there's one step military travelers often overlook that can end a vacation before it even starts. The U.S. Community Services Center on SHAPE recommends travelers look at their passports for two key things: make sure it's not going to expire in the next 90 days and check page 26 to make sure it's not a no-fee passport.
"People get confused because they don't know the difference between a no-fee and a tourist passport and that's the major issue that we have," said Melissa Hollweg, ChiAfA..vres Garrison passport agent. "A no-fee passport should not be used for leisure travel at all.
"I know some people have been using them to travel around, and some countries don't turn the pages and look in the back, and it's fine. But they're starting to catch on, and they're starting to become really strict about the different types of passports."
No-fee passports are issued to military dependents so they can travel with their sponsor to a new duty assignment. They look identical to tourist passports, however page 26 of a no-fee passport reads:
"This passport is valid only for use in connection with the bearer's residence abroad as a dependent of a member of the American military or Naval forces on active duty outside the United States."
If a border control agent flips to page 26 and notices that amendment, they can deny a traveler access to their country. It doesn't matter if they've booked a $3,000 non-refundable cruise. They will not be allowed to enter.
Hollweg said she's heard many stories from disappointed travelers, including a family that drove three hours to London only to be turned away because the border authorities realized they were traveling on no-fee passports.
"They didn't have the actual requirement that was needed to cross the border," she said.
To add to the confusion, service members aren't required to hold a passport when they report for duty. They only need to show their orders and military ID. However, that only authorizes them to report to their duty assignment.
"If a Soldier only has an official passport or they don't have any passport at all, they need to have a tourist passport to travel leisurely," said Hollweg.
THERE ARE FOUR TYPES OF U.S. PASSPORTS
This blue passport is the only passport that can be used by U.S. citizens for leisure travel abroad. The ChiAfA..vres Garrison U.S. Community Services Center recommends every service member, civilian and family member assigned to the Benelux apply for a tourist passport.
A no-fee passport looks almost identical to a tourist passport, but it can only be used for dependents who are traveling with their sponsor to an overseas duty station. Turn to page 26. If there is an amendment in the back of the passport, it is a no-fee passport. A no-fee passport cannot be used for personal travel.
An official passport can be issued to military or civilians who are on orders to be in a certain country. Personnel may hold two official passports at one time, in order to apply for travel visas. An official passport cannot be used for personal travel.
A diplomatic passport is issued to Americans serving overseas in a diplomatic status. Personnel cannot hold an official and diplomatic passport at the same time. However, they can hold two diplomatic passports, in order to apply for travel visas. A diplomatic passport cannot be used for personal travel.
HOW TO APPLY
Getting the proper passport is simple, but can take some time, therefore the Community Services Center recommends people plan ahead.
"A lot of times passports will expire, and people don't know they're expired until two days before they're supposed to leave," said Ngwarima Mutunhu, chief of separations and transitions at the Community Services Center.
No-fee, official, diplomatic and youth passports are generally valid for five years, while adult tourist passports are valid for 10.
According to the State Department, some countries require a passport to be valid six months beyond the dates of the planned travel, and some airlines will deny travelers boarding if this requirement is not met.
Because passports are not made at SHAPE, travelers need to plan ahead when renewing a passport. It can take a week for applications to be processed through the U.S. embassy in Brussels and another four to eight weeks to be processed in Washington D.C. before the document is mailed to SHAPE.
To apply for a passport in Belgium, travelers need to schedule an appointment with Hollweg at the Community Services Center on SHAPE.
Applicants 16 years of age and older who have never had a passport or applicants whose first passport was issued to them before the age of 16 must present an original birth certificate, photo ID, a $100 money order and a completed passport application (DS-11), which can be downloaded at www.travel.state.gov. Photos will be taken at the Services Center.
Applicants 16 years of age and older who need to renew their passport or request another type of passport need to bring in their current passport, a $75 money order and the completed application (DS-82).
Passports for children 15 and younger are always $85, whether they are initial requests or renewals. For initial requests, parents must accompany the applicant, and they must present the child's original birth certificate, a photo ID from both parents and a completed application (DS-11). Single parents who have their child overseas, but do not have sole custody must supply a signed, notarized statement of consent by the other parent.
Additionally, for babies born in the Benelux or other overseas locations, parents must present the original birth certificate along with an English translation.
Hollweg processes 50-60 passports per week during the slow season. Because more and more people are applying for passports in anticipation of summer vacation, she stressed that people need to come to their appointments with all the proper paperwork filled out and a money order for the exact dollar amount.
In The Netherlands, Noreen Deshazor in the ID Card Section at JFC Brunssum can assist U.S. citizens with submitting applications through the embassy. By working through the ID Card Section, customers who are assigned and living in The Netherlands can avoid the mailing costs associated with getting a passport.
"It's really critical that people understand the differences between the different types of passports," said Joe Troxell, manager of the U.S. Community Services Center. "There is such a persistent confusion out there.
"If I could be king for a day, I would say that everybody here needs to have a tourist passport, period. Even if they came over here and the U.S. government issued them one of those blue no-fee passports, as soon as they get here, they should be getting themselves a full-pay tourist passport because in the European community right now, they are really tightening up on this. You cannot use that no-fee passport for travel as a tourist, and that's all there is to it," he said.
If a traveler does not have a valid passport and there is an emergency, such as a death in the family, the U.S. Embassies in Brussels and Amsterdam can issue emergency passports.
Emergency passports are not issued solely to replace lost or expired passports to meet tourist travel requirements. They are temporary documents that allow Americans to travel in an emergency situation.
Amsterdam accepts walk-ins from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. Brussels requires online appointments, which can be made online.
U.S. citizens need to travel to Brussels or Amsterdam with the necessary paperwork to apply for an emergency passport. They cannot be processed at SHAPE or JFC Brunssum.
Following emergency travel, customers can work with the U.S. Customer Services Center at SHAPE or the ID Card Section at JFC Brunssum to obtain a full passport.
NEW PUERTO RICAN LAW
One more item that can increase processing time is a new law that passed in Puerto Rico. To protect the identity of the people of Puerto Rico, all Puerto Rican birth certificates issued before July 1, 2010, will be invalid after that date.
"If their birth certificates were issued to them before July 1, 2010, their birth certificates are no longer going to be valid to be able to process a passport," said Hollweg. "They're going to have to call the number posted on the website, and request a new birth certificate."
The exact wait time to get a new birth certificate is not known at this time, but more information is available at www.prfaa.com.