State Dept. relaxes travel restrictions on foreign military officers

The State Department is relaxing the travel restrictions on foreign military officers from countries like North Korea and China to make it easier for them to come to the United States, two State Department officials have confirmed.

Previously, members of the armed forces or coast guard in North Korea, China, Cuba, Mongolia and Vietnam could not travel to the U.S. on military business without a visa or passport. The State Department is now doing away with that rule.

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Military officers in these five countries are now eligible for a State Department waiver that would give them permission to travel here even without the proper documentation, as long as it is on official business and they receive agency approval.

"They have to be traveling on behalf of their government or the United Nations," a State Department official said.

But the change does not mean that the State Department must allow all foreign military officers to enter the country without a passport or visa. "It's not a slam dunk," as another State Department official put it.

The State Department still reserves the right to deny waivers to military officers in these countries and others, if for example, it believes they would be a danger to the country or threaten the Obama administration's foreign policy initiatives.

This rule merely gives the State Department the "flexibility" to allow these foreign military officers to travel here, whereas before it was barred from even considering it.

"It allows us to be more flexible as things change," one of the State Department officials said. “We would have that discretion, rather than regulations saying it's prohibited."

The State Department was already allowed to grant visa and passport waivers to foreign military members in most countries, but the agency had maintained a list of five countries that were not eligible for such exemptions.  

The State Department announced this week in the Federal Register that it is eliminating that list, because it is "unnecessary."

"The Department of State and Department of Homeland Security will review each visit case-by-case," the agency said.

The rule does not allow for personal travel from foreign military officers who do not have visas or passports.

The rule states that it only applies to foreign military officers “on active duty in the armed forces or coast guard of a foreign country and a member of a group of such armed forces or coast guard traveling to the United States, on behalf of the alien’s government or the United Nations, under arrangements made with the appropriate military authorities of the United States, coordinated within the U.S. Government by those U.S. military authorities, and approved by the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security for such visit.”

The rule went into effect immediately.