Our Step-by-Step Guide to Get Your Passport

Upgrade to international travel! We’ll guide you—step by step—through the passport application process so you’ll be good to go when you’re ready to go.

by NEA Member Benefits

Jan 05, 2022

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Key takeaways

  • It typically takes 5 to 7 weeks from the time of your application for your passport to arrive in the mail. But, there are currently delays due to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Pre-planning can help you avoid expedited service fees.
  • You’ll need to submit evidence of U.S. citizenship.

Editor’s Note: As the pandemic evolves, travel rules can shift at a moment's notice. Be sure to read the health and safety protocols and requirements for visitors to any destination, as well as those of airlines, car rentals and hotels before you book, and again before you travel. 

Frequent travelers know the key to the world is a passport, and they wouldn’t dream of being without it. Nor should you. Even if your typical itinerary leans toward domestic travel, you never know when an opportunity for international adventure may arise—and you even need one to get into Canada and Mexico. 

If you’re a first-time applicant, the whole process of attaining a passport can take longer than you think, and there are added delays due to COVID-19 right now. However, with a little pre-planning, you can avoid stress—not to mention expedited service fees—and be on your way to distant lands.

Apply or renew your passport online or in person

The first stop on your passport quest should always be the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs website, where you’ll click on “Get a U.S. Passport.” The site provides an accurate overview of what is needed, as well as downloadable application forms.

If you’re traveling with any children under 18, note that first-time passport applications and renewals must be submitted in person with both parents present. There are plenty of convenient locations where you can apply, including many post offices and libraries. Enter your ZIP code at the USPS website and you’ll get a list of the nearest passport acceptance facilities. Before heading to the post office, you probably need to make an appointment on its website. 

You’ll need to track down and submit evidence of U.S. citizenship. For most, the required document is a U.S. birth certificate, but it could also be a Consular Report of Birth Abroad (CRBA) or a certificate of naturalization or citizenship. 

If you can easily lay your hands on such a document, great! If not, you’ll need to factor some extra time into the whole passport acquisition process.

Get your passport photo taken

It’s necessary to provide a head shot along with your application, but it can’t be just any old photo. It must be a recent color image, correctly sized (2 x 2 inches), with your head filling a certain portion of the frame and your face wearing a neutral expression. This covers most of the key specifications, but be sure to review the checklist provided on the passport application website.

The advent of digital cameras and photo-quality printers means it is possible for individuals to produce an acceptable photo at home, but you might want to leave it up to a professional to make sure all of the photo requirements are covered. Photo studios typically offer the service, but they may be pricey. Less expensive options include pharmacies, warehouse clubs and shipping stores. Sometimes passport acceptance facilities (for example, post offices) are equipped to take photos on-site or can recommend a source.

Allow enough time for passport processing

Be sure to have your valid passport in hand before heading on your trip. So, you need to submit your application far enough in advance to make sure you’ll receive your passport in time. It usually takes 5 to 7 weeks from the time of your application for your passport to arrive in the mail, however COVID-19 has created processing delays. The State Department’s website currently advises allowing 8 to 11 weeks total to receive your passport.

There are ways to expedite the process, but they come at a premium. The U.S. Department of State tacks a $60 expedite fee on top of the basic passport fee (currently $165 for first-time applicants and $130 for renewals). The current expedited time is 5 to 7 weeks. 

Private courier companies frequently advertise themselves as “passport expeditors” and charge even more, but don’t be fooled. Although some are permitted to submit passport applications on behalf of customers, the U.S. Department of State cautions that you will not receive your passport any faster than you would if you applied in person at a passport agency. They recommend using USPS Priority Mail Express for the fastest service. You can pay extra for them to send you your passport via 1-2 day priority express mail, cutting off another few days or even a week to the processing time.

Save time by getting a “passport card”

If you shy away from air travel and you plan to limit your excursions to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda, you could get by with a passport card. It’s a smaller, more convenient and less expensive alternative to the traditional passport book for those who travel frequently to these destinations by land or sea. Some travelers opt to hold both card and booklet and benefit from a proffered discount when they apply. First-time passport cards cost $65 and renewals cost $30.

Depending on where your adventures take you, you might also need a visa. Some countries issue specific visas for specific visitors (tourist visas, business, student, journalist, etc.). A visa may be valid for only a few days or for several months. Some visas offer single entry into a country, while others permit multiple entries. The only way to determine whether you need a visa is to research your intended destination thoroughly. See the Bureau of Consular Affairs.

Protect your travel documents for smooth sailing

Once you’ve gotten your passport, amid the flurry of getting from point A to point B, you could unwittingly drop them, leave them somewhere, or worse, fall prey to thieves.

Your best line of defense is to keep passports, visas and other important documents close to your body. Wear a travel waist belt or around-the-neck travel wallet, and use it to store these items along with money and credit cards. An RFID (Radio-Frequency ID)-blocking wallet is a worthy investment, too, considering the prevalence of RFID chips in ID cards, credit cards and passports. The chips speed up transactions, but all an electronic-savvy thief needs to do is scan an unprotected wallet to gain access to your identity.

Finally, make a photocopy or digital picture of your passport and keep the copy in a different safe place from where you keep the passport, so you can prove U.S. citizenship and hasten the replacement process should it go missing while you’re abroad.

Find your next international adventure