How to get a US passport

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Before you realize your dreams of hopping on a plane and traveling to new and exotic locales, you’re going to need to get a passport. Luckily, the process of applying for a U.S. passport is fairly straightforward.

Our overview of the application process will help guide you through the process of getting a U.S. passport so you can start jetsetting abroad in no time. Remember, though, a U.S. passport is a government-issued document and the rules and processes we’ve outlined below are all subject to change. For the official word on all things U.S. passport, please refer to the State Department’s official passport rules and application procedures.

Why you need a passport

How to get a U.S. passport
Make your U.S. passport application process as smooth as possible (Image: mccun934)

In general, if you want to travel outside the U.S., you’ll need a passport to prove your identity, enter other countries and re-enter the U.S. A passport is an officially issued government document certifying your identity and citizenship, allowing you to travel abroad with the protections guaranteed to U.S. citizens. Even if you’re not planning to travel immediately, having your passport means you’ll be prepared for any last-minute international travel opportunities that come your way. Some countries require your passport to be valid for at least another six months and to contain one or more blank pages for stamps if you are to enter. Moreover, some countries require a tourist visa in addition to a passport for entry — check with the U.S. State Department for specific country requirements. Bottom line? Do your homework well in advance.

Passport books vs. passport cards

U.S. citizens can apply for passport books or passport cards, but it’s important to know the differences between these two options before submitting your passport application. While both are valid for 10 years, a passport card is only valid on travel between the U.S. and Canada, MexicoBermuda and the Caribbean. Also, passport cards can only be used at land or sea border crossings. Passport books, on the other hand, can be used for all types of international travel. Finally, the application and renewal fees for a passport book are significantly higher than that of a passport card.

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Application documents

How to get a U.S. passport
Proof of citizenship, such as a U.S. birth certificate, needs to be submitted with your passport application (Image: quinnanya used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license)

The application for a U.S. passport is Form DS-11, which you can download here. Be sure not to sign the application until instructed to do so by an Acceptance Agent at a local passport application office. In addition to Form DS-11, you’ll also need to bring evidence of your U.S. citizenship, which can be proven with a birth certificate, previous U.S. passport or a certificate of naturalization. Photo identification is also required: a driver’s license, previous passport, certificate of naturalization or valid government or military ID can be presented.  When you apply for your passport, you’ll also need to pay the current passport fees. If you need to have your passport expedited, there will be an extra fee for that, too.

Passport photo

Your passport will be a form of photo identification, but keep in mind you’ll need to bring your own photo with you when you apply for your passport – the acceptance facility will not take your photo. You can find a business that offers passport photo services in your area, or you can take your own photo following the Department of State’s guidelines. Your photo must be in color, be less than six months old, have a plain or off-white background and show your full face with a neutral expression. For specific sizing requirements and a template you can use to prepare your photo for your passport application, click here.

Where to apply

How to get a U.S. passport
Passport applications can be processed at designated facilities, which are often post offices or libraries (Image: nhoulihan)

Once you’ve gathered your application, documents and photo, you’re ready to apply for your passport. You can apply at a designated acceptance facility in your area or a regional passport agency. Acceptance facilities are often local post offices or libraries. Here, you’ll submit your application documents and wait to receive your passport by mail. Passport agencies, on the other hand, handle urgent, expedited requests and are by appointment only. Passport agencies may require proof of international travel within the next two weeks to process your application.

Passport applications from outside the U.S. are generally processed by the local embassy or consulate. If you’re renewing a passport, you may be eligible to renew by mail. Click here for the latest information on where to apply for your U.S. passport.

Processing times

The time between when you submit your application and when you can expect to receive your passport varies throughout the year, but generally, you should expect it to take four to six weeks to process your passport application. Expedited passport applications can take two to four weeks. For the most current updates on passport processing times, click here.

Protecting your passport

How to get a U.S. passport
When you’re not racking up new passport stamps, keep your passport in a safe and secure place (Image: jaaronfarr)

Once you receive your passport, you want to protect it like you would a driver’s license, social security card, birth certificate or other important documents. Keep copies of your passport’s identification page for your records, and store the actual passport in a secure place, like a fireproof safe. When traveling, use a sleeve or protective, concealed holder; there are many concealable waist pouches and necklace pouches, for example, you can wear close to your body to keep your passport from getting damaged or stolen. Don’t carry it with you if you don’t have to, either: If you’re only flying domestically, a state-issued photo ID is perfectly fine for security checkpoints.

Renewing your passport

Passport books and cards are valid for 10 years. If your passport was issued within the last 15 years, is undamaged, was issued in your current name (or you can prove your name change with a legal document) and was issued when you were 16 or older, you can renew your passport by mail. You’ll need to submit Form DS-82 with your old passport, a new passport photo, proof of a legal name change (if applicable), and the passport renewal fee. Always be sure to use a delivery method that offers tracking services when renewing by mail.

If you are not eligible to renew by mail, you’ll need to apply in person as if applying for your first passport.

While we try to keep this guide as updated as possible, always be sure to check the U.S. Department of State website for the latest information on how to apply for a U.S. passport.

Main image: Kat, Passport via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

How to get a US passport was last modified: June 26th, 2019 by Marissa Willman
Author: Marissa Willman (786 posts)

Marissa Willman earned a bachelor's degree in journalism before downsizing her life into two suitcases for a teaching gig in South Korea. Seoul was her home base for two years of wanderlusting throughout six countries in Asia. In 2011, Marissa swapped teaching for travel writing and now calls Southern California home.