The pandemic threw a wrench in the well-oiled machine of U.S. passport services. When offices were closed, in-person appointments were impossible and employees were figuring out how to work in the new normal, millions of passport applications got backlogged.
Fast forward a few years, and we’re not quite back to the 2019 norm, but we’re nearly there. Wait times are down, you can take your own photos (if you follow directions with military precision) and a new online system is rolling out for passport renewals that makes the process a lot easier (if you meet the specific criteria).
We checked in with the State Department to get the latest information on what travelers need to know about passport services.
How long does it take to get a U.S. passport?
While the timeline fluctuates throughout the year, “right now our current processing times for passports are six to nine weeks for routine [processing] and three to five weeks for expedited processing,” said Rachel M. Arndt, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for passport services. Before the pandemic, it was more like four to eight weeks for routine services and two to three weeks to expedite by mail.
The clock on processing times doesn’t start when you drop your application in the mail. It starts when the passport agency gets your application and ends when they issue a passport. “So only when it’s in our control,” Arndt said. It could take much longer if you live somewhere where mail moves slowly.
The State Department can get you a passport faster in emergency scenarios - such as a “life-or-death” situation that requires you to travel within three days, or a request for urgent travel within 14 calendar days - but you’ll need to prove the emergency and get an in-person appointment (walk-ins are not accepted).
Current processing times aside, don’t wait until the week before your trip to sort your passport situation. Many countries require three or six months validity on your passport to enter, so keep an eye on your passport’s expiration date and file your application far in advance.
How much does a U.S. passport cost?
For adults applying for their first passport, you’ll pay two fees, one for your application ($130) and one “acceptance fee” ($35). Adults renewing their passport must pay a $130 application fee only. It’s $60 to expedite either service and another $18.32 for shipping via first-class mail, which will take one or two days.
It’s a little cheaper for children’s passports, or if you’re just getting a passport card versus the standard passport book.
What forms do I need to apply for a U.S. passport?
To get a passport for the first time, you’ll need to fill out a form DS-11 (but wait to sign it) and bring it to your in-person appointment with evidence of U.S. citizenship (your official birth certificate or Certificate of Citizenship, among other documents); a copy of that evidence; your photo ID; a copy of your ID; and a passport photo.
There are a few cases where you’ll have to renew your passport in person, but otherwise you can do it by mail or online.
To renew your passport by mail, you first need to print a form DS-82 (or pick one up at a local passport acceptance facility or regional agency). Then you’ll fill it out by hand (or create a printable version using the online passport application wizard). When you submit it, you’ll need to include your passport photo, your payment, your most recent passport and, if you’re requesting a name change, a certified copy of your marriage certificate or a court order of your name change.
If you’ll be traveling a lot in the next decade, you can request a bigger passport book with 52 pages at no extra cost by checking a box in the Form DS-82.
Can I apply for a U.S. passport online?
While the new system is getting its footing, the State Department is only processing renewals online for people who meet specific criteria. It takes the same amount of time to process as the mail-in service, and it is only available to U.S. citizens and residents 25 and older who’ve already had a passport with 10-year validity, among other requirements. Here are a few big ones for example:
-Applicants can’t request a change to name, gender, date of birth or place of birth in the application.
-They aren’t traveling internationally for at least six weeks from the day they submitted their application.
-They’re only applying for a regular passport, and they possess their current passport (it can’t be lost, stolen, damaged or mutilated).
-They can pay with credit or debit card, or an ACH (automated clearing house) payment, and are able to upload a digital passport photo in a .JPEG file format.
-Your recent passport was issued between nine and 15 years before the date you apply (it can be expired).
Check the State Department website for the latest terms.
Do I need to apply for a U.S. passport in person?
You’ll have to apply in person at a passport acceptance facility if:
• This is your first U.S. passport
• You’re under 16
• Your last passport was issued when you were 16 or younger
• Your last passport was lost, stolen or damaged
• Your last passport was issued more than 15 years ago
Arndt says there are more than 7,300 acceptance facilities, including post offices, clerks of court, state and local government offices and public libraries.
How do I make an in-person appointment at a U.S. passport agency?
You must apply in person for special rushed services, like life-or-death emergencies or urgent travel, by making an appointment at a U.S. passport agency (not a passport acceptance facility).
The only way to get an in-person appointment at one of the 29 agencies is to call 877-487-2778. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing, call 888-874-7793 for TDD/TTY teletype services.
Should I use a passport expediting company?
With a 10-year expiration period, it can be easy to forget about your passport until it’s too late. In a frantic Google to “get my passport fast,” a bunch of results for expediting services will pop up, from FedEx to mom-and-pop operations.
“What they’re doing is charging a fee to submit the application to us on behalf of a customer,” Arndt said of such third-party companies. “They’re not going to receive their passport any faster by using that courier company.”
Many of them are legitimate and can provide a valuable service to people - they can make the process much easier for you - “but just like everything else in life . . . we really do recommend that people do their research before using one of those companies,” Arndt said.
Because you’re handing over sensitive personal information and documents like your birth certificate, it’s critical to research the company first, check out user reviews or go with a service that was already used by a trusted friend. As a rule of thumb, experts warn that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
What can I use as a passport photo?
With the proliferation of digital and smartphone cameras, these days you don’t need to go to a drugstore or post office to get your passport photo taken (although you still can if you’d like).
You can take your photo at home so long as you follow the State Department website’s full list of requirements, from size to resolution to what you can wear and what to do with your face (neutral facial expression with both eyes open and mouth closed). The most important thing is that it must look exactly like you, so no filters, photo editing or flattering lighting.
While it may seem like the easiest option, Arndt warns against using a front-facing camera to capture your passport photo. “People are so used to taking selfies, but when you take a selfie . . . it transforms your face a little bit,” Arndt said. For a more accurate shot, use a photo taken from a rear-facing camera lens whether it’s taken by a friend, or you set up a camera at least 4 feet away with a self-timer.