Getting a passport for the first time might seem complicated. With so many forms to fill out and details to provide, it's hard to know where to begin. But if you want to travel overseas, including the Caribbean, Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and Panama, you will need a passport to exit and re-enter the United States. Here's the low-down on how to apply:
Who needs a passport?
As a general rule, US citizens wanting to travel outside the United States will need a passport. Alternative documents (such as the SENTRI, NEXUS and FAST program cards) are under consideration as acceptable, but a passport is the recommended identification for any travel outside of the country. For more information on travel requirements in the United States, Mexico and Canada, visit the Department of State’s website.
How to apply
A good rule when applying for passports is to allow plenty of time. The standard time for an application to be processed is six weeks, but delays can occur. Make sure you start the process at least two months before you plan to travel. Ideally, apply for a passport between September and February as there is the lowest volume of applications then. But don't panic if you've left this until the last minute – there are ways to expedite the process.
You can apply for a passport by mail or in person. You will need to apply in person if:
- You are applying for the first time.
- Your passport has been lost or stolen.
- Your passport has expired and was issued more than 15 years ago.
- Your passport has expired and you were under 16 when it was issued.
- You have changed your name but do not have any legal documentation of the change you will need to apply in person.
For all other applications (renewals or name changes if you have documentation) you can use the mail.
Where to apply
There are 13 passport agencies and more than 7,000 application acceptance facilities across the US. You can search online for your closest facility on the Department of State's website.
If you are applying by mail, send your forms to the National Passport Center, P.O. Box 371971, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7971.
What do you need to apply?
To apply for your first passport you will need to:
Fill out application form DS-11. This can be obtained from any passport agency application acceptance facility or downloaded from the Department of State website. Please note: You must not sign this until you are instructed to do so by the passport agent.
Provide proof of US citizenship. This can be any of the following: previous passport (but only if it's not damaged), certified birth certificate, Consular report of birth abroad, naturalization certificate, certificate of citizenship.
Provide proof of identity. This can be any of the following: previous passport (but only if it's not damaged), naturalization certificate, driver's license, government ID, military ID. If none of these are available, then you can show signature documents (for example, social security card, credit cards, library card) and use a person to vouch for you who has been known to you for two years and who has US citizenship and relevant ID.
Provide two passport photos. These must be 2x2 inches, identical, taken within the past six months, in color, full face and should be of your normal appearance, (i.e., you should not wear a hat, you should wear glasses if you usually wear glasses or a wig if you usually wear a wig).
Pay the fee. You can pay by credit card, debit card, check, money order or bank check. The total fee is $97 for those over 16 (which includes the passport fee, security surcharge and execution fee) and $82 for those under 16.
Provide your social security number. This is not essential, but you can be fined $500 if you don't provide it.
For renewal applications, which can be mailed, you will need to:
- Fill in the form DS-82, available online or at a passport agency or a passport acceptance facility.
- Include your recent passport.
- Provide two passport photos.
- Pay the fee. For passport renewals this is $67.
If you have changed your name you also need to include legal documentation for your name change and fill out form DS-19.
Once you’ve applied
The standard processing time for passports is six weeks. You can check the status of your application online.
How can you fast-track a passport application?
If you are traveling within six weeks, there are ways to ensure you get your passport on time. If you apply by normal methods, but mark your application "EXPEDITED" and pay an extra fee of $60, then the passport office will return it within two weeks. If this still isn't enough time, or you want to make sure that you have applied correctly, you can use a third party passport service. The US Passport Bureau can issue a passport in less than four days. You can apply online or by telephone at (572) 331-8290. Alternatively, Travisa issues passports and visas when you need them in a hurry. They can even rush through a passport application on the same day. Needless to say, you will pay more for these services.