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Guide to Applying for U.S. Passports

Guide to Applying for U.S. Passports

Not having a passport can be a roadblock to getaways ranging from the ideal family vacation to a critical business trips. But having a valid U.S. passport can open doors, expose you to new cultures, and perhaps most importantly, eliminate the stress of not having a valid passport.

Depending on a host of factors, applying for a passport can be a long, tedious process for reasons ranging from national security concerns to the sheer demand for these important travel documents. But 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.

Steps for First-Time Passport Applicants

Once you’ve figured out that you need a passport – yes, it’s even required for entry to and from Canada and Mexico – the clock starts ticking. Fortunately, 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:

  • 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:

    • See list of approved agencies, which includes post offices and other facilities. Some offices may include walk-in hours, so be sure to ask.

    • Contact the National Passport Information Center, available 24/7, at 1-877-487-27781

  • Gather up needed documentation: Once you have your appointment, 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:

    • Proof of identity: Bring a valid U.S. driver’s license, naturalization certificate, military or government identification or a valid passport.

    • Proof of citizenship: You’ll need some approved documents that prove you’re a legal citizen of the United States. These include a certified birth certificate (one that lists both parents, registrar’s seal and applicant's full name), naturalization certificate, certificate of citizenship, consular report of birth abroad (for children born abroad to U.S. parents), or even a valid passport. Do not submit copies of these documents; they must be originals.2

  • Provide two identical passport photos (see below “Passport Details” section)

  • Complete the paperwork: You’ll need to complete Form DS-11: Application for a U.S. Passport before arriving at the passport office. Do not sign the document until you’re instructed to do so by office staff as they’ll need to witness this signature.3

Passports for Minors

There isn’t much of a difference in the protocol between obtaining a passport for an infant and a 15-year-old. These steps include:

  • Obtaining a copy of their birth certificate (Be sure to use a copy from your state’s vital record office and not a commemorative version issued by some hospitals)4

  • Snapping a photo. Yes, even newborn babies need a photo; the good news is that you’re likely taking a lot of baby pictures already. It is OK to hold babies who may not be able to sit yet without parental assistance. (See additional photo guidelines below.)

  • Visiting an approved passport office. Remember the picture and birth certificate. 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. 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.)5

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 statement 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.6

Passport Details: Photos, Turnaround and Fees

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 – and remember not to smile.

  • Photo tips & guidelines: You’ll need two identical pictures that meet these requirements:

    • Picture needs to be from last six months

    • Photo should feature your full face, with a front-facing view (If you really want to be specific, State Department guidelines call for between 1” and 1 3/8” between the bottom of the chin and the top of the head.)

    • Use a light-colored wall. Also, turn off your flash and use natural light.

    • Use the sRGB color setting, which is the most common/default setting for digital cameras.

    • Don’t smile. Seriously, it’s now allowed.

    • Don’t blink, either.

    • Print out with photo paper, for DIYers.

    • For sizing, print the picture out at 2” by 2.” The digital measurements need to be between 600 x 600 pixels and 1200 x 1200 pixels. (If you’re scanning a picture, that’s 300 pixels per inch.) Be sure to maintain a square aspect ratio, too.

    • Wear casual clothes or “normal street attire.” This means no uniforms, hats or glasses (unless they’re prescription eyewear.)7

The State Department has a free cropping tool you can use to edit photos.

  • Passport Fees

    • Passport Book: This is the recognizable blue passport book. It is valid for international travel to and from the United States. $135 ($120 for minors)

    • Passport Card: This credit card-sized ID is valid for travel to and from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean. $55. ($40 for minors)

    • Passport Book & Card: Frequent travelers may find some convenience in receiving both forms of ID. $165. ($115 for minors)

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 fee.

For in-person fees, applicants may pay with credit cards, checks, money orders or cash; exact change is requested. Checks and money orders made payable to the Department of State are the available option for mail renewals.

  • Turnaround time

    • Standard / routine service turnaround time: About four to six weeks

    • Expedited service: About three weeks. The additional cost is $60. Additionally, applicants may request overnight delivery of passport books for $14.85.8

    • These times are estimates. Times are updated based on current volume and demand, so be sure to check with the U.S. State Department.

Steps for Passport Renewal

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 that starting the application process from scratch.

But before getting excited about a cheaper, quick 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.9

The good news about meeting the conditions for renewal is conditions is that you don’t need to set foot in a passport office. You can simply renew your passport by mail following these steps:

  • Complete Form DS-82: Application for a U.S. Passport by Mail

  • 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 (The fee will be $25 less than what new applicants pay: $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.

  • Mail it away!

    • For standard/routine service (four to six weeks turnaround), mail to: National Passport Processing Center Post Office Box 90155 Philadelphia, PA 19190-0155

    • For expedited service (about three weeks), write “EXPEDITE” on the envelope’s exterior, include an additional $60 and mail to: 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 travelling.10

Time is of the essence when it comes to applying for or renewing your U.S. passport. 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 truly opens up.