A passport is more than an internationally recognized legal document. It’s your ticket to explore the world.
Not having a passport can be a roadblock to getaways ranging from multi-generational family vacations to business trips designed to get the deal sealed. But having a valid U.S. passport can open doors, expose you to new cultures, and allow you to escape the country without playing the part of a stowaway.
If you’re reading about passports, you most likely fall into one of two groups: either you’re renewing your passport or you’re applying for a new one. Either way, you’re in good traveling company: in the past year alone, the U.S. Department of State issued more than 21 million passports. If you didn’t guess already, that’s a record. And passport prognosticators believe those numbers are only going up.1
Depending on a host of factors, applying for a passport can be a long, tedious process. But we’re here to make it easier. And once you have it in hand, passports are valid anywhere from five years for minors to 10 years for those 16 years and older.
As you’ll find out, the best time to get a passport is most often before you need one. So, let’s get started…
Once you’ve figured out that you need a passport, the clock starts ticking.
And more and more folks are finding out they need one. Yes, our neighbors to the north and south — Canada and Mexico — both require a valid U.S. passport for entry. But now, thanks to the REAL ID Act, you may need a passport to fly domestically, depending on your home state. That’s because a handful of states have failed to weave the necessary minimum-security standards into their state-issued ID program, meaning you’ll need an alternative form of identification, such as a passport or military ID, to pass through a Transportation Security Authority (TSA) checkpoint.2 To learn if your state meets the standard, visit the Department of Homeland Defense website.
Once you’ve determined you need a passport, if you have all the needed documents and time to spare, applying for a U.S. passport for the first time isn’t difficult. Here are the steps you’ll need to follow:
1. Schedule a trip to a passport facility: If you’re applying for a passport for the first time or need an extremely expedited turnaround – in two weeks or fewer, for example – you’ll want to schedule an appointment at an authorized passport acceptance facility:
Contact the National Passport Information Center, available 24/7, at 1-877-487-2778 with any questions.3
2. Gather up needed documentation: Once you have your appointment or determined you can just show up at an agency, you’ll need to prove you are who you say you are, and that you’re a U.S. citizen. Here is what you’ll need:
3. Provide two identical passport photos(see below “Passport Details” section)
4. Complete the paperwork: Complete Form DS-11, “Application for a U.S. Passport, online or via PDF before arriving at the passport office. Be sure to print them and bring them with you. One note: Do not sign the document until you’re instructed to do so by office staff as they’ll need to witness this signature.5
There isn’t much of a difference in the protocol between obtaining a passport for an infant and a 15-year-old. (And the State Department offers a handy step-by-step guide). The key steps include:
2. Obtain a copy of their birth certificate: Be sure to use an original or certified copy from your state’s vital record office and not a commemorative version issued by some hospitals.
3. Snap a photo. Yes, even newborn babies need a photo; the good news is that you’re likely taking a lot of baby pictures already. A couple of things to be aware of; first, you cannot have any other person in the photo, not even mom or dad’s hand, which can make things a bit difficult. Try laying the child on his or her back with a white blanket or sheet to provide head support. Plan B is to place your newborn in the car seat, which should be covered with a white sheet. (See additional photo guidelines below.)6
4. Visiting an approved passport office. Remember the picture and birth certificate. Seriously, double check you have them before leaving home. In order to establish parental consent, both parents should be present. If one cannot make it, then he or she will need to complete a notarized copy of Form DS-3053 (“Statement of Consent”) Also, if a parent has sole custody of the child applying, he or she should bring a court order or any other necessary paperwork. Finally, a parent may sign the passport for a child who cannot yet sign his or her name. (Parents or guardians should print child’s name, then sign their own name and indicate their relationship.)
For 16- and 17-year-olds, it’s a little bit easier. Parents don’t need to accompany them to a passport office; however, something called “parental awareness” needs to be established. This obligation can be met in a number of ways, such as having a parent accompany the applicant, or signing a statement that OKs the passport application. Such statements should be accompanied by a photocopy of the ID from the parent(s) who signed the document. One more note: if a parent forbids a 16- or 17-year-old child from being issued a passport, and expresses so in writing, a passport will more than likely not be issued.7
You may not be able to get a passport tomorrow, but you can get one sooner or later for the right price. But first, you’ll need to take the all-important passport photo.
You’ll need two identical pictures that meet these requirements:
All prices include a $25 execution fee for new passport applicants; those who meet the conditions to renew (see “Steps for Passport Renewal” below) do not need to pay the execution fee.
Passport fees should be paid with checks (personal, certified or cashier’s) or money orders made payable to the Department of State. If you’re visiting an office, you may be able to pay for execution fees via additional payment methods (e.g., credit card or cash). Inquire ahead of time with the facility you’ll be visiting so there are no surprises. You can learn more about fees at the State Department site.10
These times are estimates — and the time for receiving an expedited passport at a passport agency can vary. Times are updated based on current volume and demand, so be sure to check with the U.S. State Department.11
If your passport is 10 years or older (granted you got it when you were 16 years or older) or you’ve changed your name, it’s time for a renewal. The good news is that this process is much more user-friendly than starting the application process from scratch.
But before getting excited about a cheaper, quicker and faster process, you should know a few things about who can and can’t follow an expedited passport renewal path. If your passport was lost or damaged, it was issued when you were younger than 16 years old, you changed names but lack the documents to validate the change, or more than 15 years have passed since you received the passport, you’ll need to swing by a passport agency.12
The good news about meeting the conditions for renewal is that you don’t need to set foot in a passport office. You can simply renew your passport by mail following these steps:
1. Complete Form DS-82: Application for a U.S. Passport by Mail, by completing online or via PDF.
2. Package up your current passport – one that meets the above conditions – along with the completed form, one passport photo (unbent and stapled to the application) and the applicable fee ($140 for the passport book and card, $110 for the passport book and $30 for just the passport card). Select an envelope large enough that none of the contents need to be bent to fit. For name changes and other requests, additional documents apply – and fees may vary depending on the circumstances.
3. Mail it away!
National Passport Processing Center
Post Office Box 90155
Philadelphia, PA 19190-0155
National Passport Processing Center
Post Office Box 90955
Philadelphia, PA 19190-0955
One more note: If you have fewer than six months remaining on your passport before it expires, some countries may refuse you entry. You’ll want to renew your document before traveling.
As you’ve probably figured by now, time is of the essence when it comes to applying for or renewing your U.S. passport. (Pro tip: November and December are the fastest months for getting your passport processed quickly due to a lower volume of requests.)13
Now you know everything you need to know when applying for or renewing your U.S. passport. Here’s the catch: it may not be enough. Most countries, in fact, also require a travel visa from incoming U.S. travelers. The good news is that we have a travel visa guide as well.
With enough time and the right organization, getting this critical travel document is a fairly stress-free process. And once you have your passport, a world of possibilities awaits.