February 10, 2017

Passport Q & A

Written by:
Maureen McKamey

2017 will mark the ten year anniversary of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which changed the ID requirements for Americans traveling to and from Mexico and Canada. 

When the law went into effect, it required anyone crossing those borders to have a valid passport. Passports are good for ten years. Put those two facts together, and what do you get? An expected surge of people renewing their passports between now and the end of next year. Whether yours is up for renewal soon, or you’re applying for a passport for the first time, we’ve got answers to all the questions you might have about the process.

Q: Do I need a passport?

A: Are you a U.S. citizen planning to travel abroad? Chances are, you need a passport. If you’re flying anywhere outside the U.S. and its territories, you’ll need to have one. If you’re taking a cruise that begins and ends in a U.S. port, technically, you don’t need a passport, but we strongly recommend you have one. If you miss your cruise’s departure, for example, you will probably have to fly to the next port to meet your ship. You could also have an emergency that forces you to cut your cruise short and return to the U.S. sooner than you anticipated. Once again, to board a plane back, you’ll need to have a valid passport. If you’re driving across the border to Canada or Mexico, a passport will also expedite that process. The truth is, if you’re planning to travel internationally, you’re going to want to apply for one.

Q: What’s the difference between a passport book and a passport card? Which one is best for me?

A: Passport books can be used for international air travel, but passport cards won’t get you on a plane. The cards, wallet-sized IDs, can be used at land border crossings and sea ports of entry. The passport cards are less expensive than a book. You can get one for $55, while passport books cost $135. It may be a good option for someone driving to Mexico or Canada, or anyone taking a cruise that starts and ends in the U.S. But if you’re flying to a different country, you’ll need a passport book.

Q: How do I apply for a passport?

A: If you are applying for a passport for the first time, you’ll need to do so in person at a passport acceptance facility. Find one near you here: https://iafdb.travel.state.gov/.

You’ll also have to apply in person if you are under the age of 16; if your previous U.S. passport was issued when you were under 16; if your previous passport was lost, stolen or damaged; or if your previous passport was issued more than 15 years ago. You’ll need to fill out a form (available on the State Department’s website, travel.state.gov), and provide proof of U.S. citizenship. That can include a birth certificate, certificate of naturalization, certificate of citizenship, or a fully valid and undamaged passport. You’ll also need a form of ID, like a driver’s license. Make a photocopy of the front and back to present when you apply, as well. And don’t forget a photo! There are details on what’s required for your passport photo below. If you complete the application, bring these extra items, and pay the appropriate fee, you’ll be on your way to getting your passport.

For complete details on applying for a passport, visit https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/passports/applyinperson.html

Q: How do I renew my passport?

A: The renewal process is simpler than a first time application. You won’t need to go to a passport acceptance facility; you can apply by mail, instead. You’ll need to fill out the form and submit your most recent passport. If you’re changing your name, after getting married, for example, you’ll need to include the appropriate documents showing the name change. You’ll need to include a new passport photo, and a check for the renewal fee. Then, mail your application and documentation to:

National Passport Processing Center
Post Office Box 90155
Philadelphia, PA 19190-0155

For complete details on passport renewal, visit: https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/passports/renew.html.

Q: You said there are special requirements for my passport photo. What are they?

A: The easiest way to get a passport photo is to visit a store that will take them for you. Even drug stores, like CVS or Walgreens, will take a photo for you. These stores know the requirements, and will make sure to provide you with an acceptable photo. But if you’re taking your own, you’ll need to stick to these rules:

  • 2 x 2 inches (51 x 51 mm) in size
  • Size of head must be between 1 -1 3/8 inches (25 - 35 mm) from the bottom of the chin to the top of the head.
  • Printed on matte or glossy photo paper, in color
  • Taken in the last six months
  • Plain white or off-white background
  • Directly facing the camera with your whole face in view
  • Neutral facial expression or natural smile
  • No hats or head coverings unless worn for religious purposes

And one requirement is changing November 1st. While you used to be able to take a passport photo with glasses as long as there’s no glare, starting next month, you’ll have to take them off.

Need some good and bad examples of passport photos? Check out this link: https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/passports/photos/photo-examples.html.

Q: I’ve sent in my application. When can I expect to get my passport?

A: This can vary greatly, depending on the time of year. And we also mentioned that a lot of people will be renewing between now and the end of 2017, so that’s expected to slow things down. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you’re traveling in less than six weeks, expedite your passport to make sure you get it on time.

Q: I need my passport to arrive sooner than that 6 week window. How do I expedite my application?

A: It depends on how quickly you need it. If you’re traveling in less than three weeks, head to a passport agency or center. You’ll need to make an appointment, and show proof of travel. If you have a little more time, six weeks or less, you can expedite the process at a passport acceptance facility or by mail. The expediting fee is $60. You’ll also need to mail your application to a different address:

Write "EXPEDITE" on the outside of the mailing envelope.

National Passport Processing Center
Philadelphia, PA 19190-0955

For more details on expediting your passport application, visit: https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/passports/services/expedited.html.

Q: OK, I’ve got my passport. How long is it valid?

A: The answer to this includes a caveat. Passports expire every 10 years for anyone 16 and older, and every five years for kids under the age of 16. But many countries will not accept a passport with less than six months of validity left. So in reality, you want to get your passport renewed before it reaches the nine and a half year mark (or the four and a half mark, if you’re under the age of 16).

Q: Anything else I need to know?

A: You’ve probably noticed that all the links we’ve provided for more info take you to the U.S. State Department’s website. It’s a great resource to all your questions about passports. That’s where you’ll find the application forms you need, along with step by step directions for applying or renewing. While you’re there, you can also read up on travel tips, safety advisories for certain countries, and details on visas.

Just go to travel.state.gov.