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.

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by NEA Member Benefits

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Key takeaways

  • You’ll need to submit evidence of U.S. citizenship.
  • It typically takes 4 to 6 weeks from the time of your application for your passport to arrive in the mail.
  • Pre-planning can help you avoid expedited service fees.

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

Acquisition and renewal

The first stop on your passport quest should always be the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs website. The site provides an accurate overview of what is needed, as well as downloadable application forms. For adults, renewals can be accomplished online, but first-timers have to apply in person. And, 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 spots to apply, however, including many post offices and libraries. Enter your ZIP code at the website and you’ll get a list of the nearest passport acceptance facilities.

Before heading to the office, you may need to make an appointment. You also must track down evidence of U.S. citizenship, which you’ll need to submit. 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.

Say “cheese”

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. Photo studios typically offer the service, but they may be pricy. 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 will at least recommend a source.

Passport processing time

It usually takes 4 to 6 weeks from the time of your application for your passport to arrive in the mail. 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 $135 for first-time applicants and $110 for renewals).

Private courier companies frequently advertise themselves as “passport expeditors” and charge even more. 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.

Play the 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 $55 while renewals are $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.

Safe passage

Amid the flurry of getting from point A to point B, when it’s essential to have travel documents at the ready, you could unwittingly drop them, leave them somewhere or worse, fall prey to thieves. It could happen. Your best line of defense is to keep passports, visas and the like 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.

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