If only we could photoshop our passport photos the way we do any other shots we deem worthy of public consumption (AKA guaranteed more than 40 Instagram likes). Sure, we’d get the occasional eyebrow raise from a security agent wondering how the jet-lagged messy bun (or man bun) in front of them could possibly be the same poreless human peering out of their passport photo. But it would beat getting stuck with a 10-year memory of that time you decided a wool turtleneck the exact Pantone as the backdrop would make for a flattering look (spoiler alert: it doesn’t).

Here’s how to master the art of the passport photo, and even wind up with something Tinder-worthy in the process.

Pick your place

Don’t just hop aboard the bandwagon to the nearest drug store chain and expect to come out with something to swipe-right home about. All passport photo offices were not created equal. Do your homework—if the cashier/janitor/greeter whips out a Go Pro and a headlamp, chances are you’re going to come out looking less celebrity and more like you just pulled an all-nighter. But for every multi-hyphenate “post office-slash-photo studio” there’s a hidden gem — those mom-and-pop shops with five-star Yelp reviews, usually tucked inside an unassuming hole-in-the-wall. The best ones will adjust the lighting and sometimes even include a complimentary shot “for mom” (speaking from experience, here). How can you beat that?

Put down the selfie stick

While professional photos are recommended, you can also take your own passport photo. But, before you pick up that selfie stick and start considering potential filters (Valencia, obviously, especially if you’re heading to Spain), note that hand-held self-portraits are not accepted and photos should not be digitally altered. For more guidelines on taking your own photo, check out the U.S. Department of State’s Photographer’s Guide.

Long hair, don’t care

A slicked-back bun may look top-knot[ch]— see what we did there?—in a Polaroid snapped by Tyra Banks, but a sleek pony is no match for the oh-so-flattering passport photo flash. It’s easy to look stringy and/or frizzy against a white backdrop, and chances are the passport photo office employees don’t have time to Photoshop your flyaways. Wear your hair down in a soft style that won’t feel dated five to 10 years from now. (Read: save that fishtail crown braid you’ve recently mastered for Coachella, not flying coach. And, if you don’t typically sport facial hair, wait until after Movember for your close up.)

Don’t cake on the makeup

As much as potential suitors adore it when you coat your face in a Kardashian amount of face paint, the caked-on, stage-makeup look isn’t quite as flattering in a passport photo as it is in an artfully airbrushed selfie. Even in black-and-white, iridescent blushes and bold shadows can look clownish (but then again, what doesn’t when blasted with fluorescents?), and sticking to neutral enhancers like a creamy eyeliner, a balm stain and an extra coat of mascara will help the right features pop.

But perhaps the biggest culprit in turning a Tinder-worthy snap into a mugshot? Under-eye bags. Top-lighting can cast an unflattering shadow and make you appear a little criminal (and not in a sexy Lohan or Beiber kind of way). Help bounce the light upwards by drawing an upside-down triangle under each eye using a concealer or highlighter pen and patting gently to blend. A little light contouring to carve out those off-duty model cheekbones and you’re travel—and Tinder!—ready. (Guys, this goes for you too—a little powder goes a long way.)

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Prime time

When you can’t use a little FaceTune or filter action to ensure a smooth complexion, the next best thing is a primer. A heavy flash can accentuate problem areas like the fine marionette lines around your nose and mouth (and isn’t the whole point of having a passport for five years to make you feel five years younger than you actually are?). Keep foundation from creasing by applying a primer first, and powdering afterward to set and prevent shine, the other passport-photo deadly sin. Trust us, no one wants to be handed a Kleenex to mop up a glistening forehead mid-photoshoot.

What not to wear

Remember that time you wore your favorite navy GAP overalls on school picture day (this was the ’90s, after all), only to have your prints come back looking like a pre-teen head in orbit against a laser backdrop (if you had cool parents, that is)? Yeah, not so cute. Since your passport photo backdrop will be white or, at the very least, off-white, wearing an ivory sweater or even your go-to plain tee can give you instant Floating Head Syndrome. A solid, darker colored shirt in a crew or V-neck is the way to go.

Practice that pose

Unless you’re a seasoned selfie connoisseur, chances are you’ve been using the same head-tilt-and-broad-beam in every photo. When faced with the dreaded “neutral expression,” it’s easy to accidentally appear a little bit meaner than intended — not something you want to be stuck with for the next half-decade. Practice the universally flattering passport photo angle in the mirror: chin down and about an inch further out than usual, and as much of a smile as you can muster without squinting. If you wear glasses, tilt them down on your nose to avoid glare. If you don’t normally wear glasses, take them off. Keep your lips relaxed and ever-so-slightly turned up at the corners—ask the attendant to count to three aloud and blink on “one” to ensure your eyes stay open. Thank us later.

For more on passport photo guidelines, consult the U.S. Department of State’s Photo Requirements. You can also learn more about how to get a U.S. passport here.


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About the author

Chelsey BurnsideChelsey is a travel, fashion and lifestyle writer based in Toronto. Her work also appears in The Coveteur, The Ottawa Citizen, The Toronto Star and various notebooks left in airports.

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