A passport is a must-have for anyone wishing to travel outside the United States, as you can’t get back into the country without one. So, if you are planning your first overseas adventure with college friends, or simply feel that the time is right for some international travel, you need to learn how to get a US passport.
Even if you don’t have any immediate travel plans, a passport is a great form of identification, and you never know when a travel opportunity may arise. Because the process can take some time from beginning to end, it helps to start ASAP and to understand all the steps along the way.
Here is a run-down of what to expect when applying for a U.S. passport and why a commercial passport agency might be a good choice.
What documents do you need to apply for a passport?
The short answer here is, a lot. Not just anybody can get a United States passport, which is why they are such important documents for identification and security.
You’ll need to bring all of the following:
Passport application. All passport applicants must complete the U.S. State Department’s Form DS-11 “Application for a U.S. Passport” to have their request processed. You MUST have a social security number to apply for a passport
Proof of citizenship. An original proof of citizenship document can include a birth certificate, previous passport, naturalization certificate, or a consular report of birth abroad.
Proof of identity. A photo ID such as a driver’s license or a government-issued ID is best. If none is available, you can bring a combination of alternate forms of ID, such as a social security card, a credit card, an employee ID, and an identifying witness who can swear to your identity.
Photocopies. Bring a letter-sized photocopy of the front and back of the citizenship document and photo ID document. This will accompany your U.S. passport application form.
Passport photos. Two current color photographs that fit the photo requirements.
Payment. All fees may be paid by credit card or check or money order payable to “Department of State.”
ⓘ TIP: There’s a long list of things you’ll need to prepare before traveling abroad. Use this checklist to make sure you don’t forget anything.
Dealing with the forms and application.
Applying for your passport can be a bit of a hassle. For a start, if you thought you could just check some boxes online, we’re not quite there yet with American bureaucracy. Instead, you have to either collect physical forms from the Post Office (yep, they’re still a thing!) or print a downloaded copy from the government website. Make sure to follow their instructions to the letter. Again, trust us: This is worth the effort.
Once you have collected everything you need – including photocopies of your identification and those approved photos – you can go to your local acceptance facility or United States Passport Services building. Here, they will take all the forms and proof of documentation, watch you sign the papers and take an oath, and make sure you pay the fee.
By “the oath,” we aren’t talking about the Oath of Allegiance. (Although, given the strict rules on citizenship, it wouldn’t be a massive surprise!) Instead, it is simply a way to swear and confirm that everything is true and that you aren’t trying to get a passport under false pretenses. Once they’re happy, it all goes off for processing.
Why is it so important to start the process early?
When you’re applying for a US passport for the first time, one of the worst things that you can do is start the process mere weeks before an important trip!
As soon as you know you have to travel abroad, get those forms and photocopies printed out and get access to that fee. It can take a while to gather everything together and make sure that you have followed the guidelines to the letter. Also, put a day aside for going and getting the forms and photos from the Post Office. You might not meet the strict rules on photos the first time.
Then you need to factor in when you can take all your documents to the passport office for verification. There is the chance they won’t be open at the most convenient time, so check and plan ahead. At this point, you’ve followed through with your end of the deal, signed off, and paid the fee. Now there is just the waiting game as the documents are processed. You can check the status online with your reference after about a week.
Another factor to consider is that some countries insist on passports being valid for six months after you have returned to the country. It sounds strange, but you don’t want to get caught out with a passport too close to running out.
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How long does it take to get a passport?
According to the U.S. State Department, it takes 8-11 weeks to get a routine passport. Expedited service costs an extra $60 and takes 5-7 weeks. Processing times begin the day they receive your application, not the day you mail your application or apply.
For a life-or-death emergency, they may make an exception. See this page for more information.
This can vary depending on the time of year. It is a good idea to apply in quieter seasons. The worst time is in March and April because this is when most people start to think about renew their passport before summer vacation. You might also find the process stumbles if they aren’t happy with something, such as a small issue with the photos or incorrect information.
The sooner you apply, the sooner you can explore.
It’s a good idea to get a passport in place when you turn 16. This adult passport lasts for 10 years, so will see you through college and your early twenties without any hassle. A good reason for this is that you don’t know where adventures will take you during these years – either on college break, study abroad opportunities, or other vacations.
You might not need a U.S. passport to fly domestically, but if you ever end up wanting to cross the border into Canada or Mexico, you’ll be happy you have it. And besides, you never know when a last-minute travel opportunity might arise!
So—especially if your passport is going to expire in the next year—get this done right away to stay on the safe side.
Why do people use a commercial passport agency?
If this all sounds like a lot to deal with – and that isn’t surprising – there is another route you can take. You might find it easy to pay a passport agency instead. Commercial passport agencies are a middleman between you and the passport office.
The idea here is that they streamline the process and carry out some of the hard work so that you have less to worry about. From there, you may be able to cut down the time between starting your application and getting your approved passport.
These passport services are popular because they make life a lot easier. It you have never had a passport before, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the forms and details. Putting the administrative work into the hands of experienced pros is a huge relief. These companies have the application system down to a simple process from dealing with the forms to dealing with your local USPS.
The only downside is the extra cost of hiring these agents to do the work for you. It may be slightly more expensive than the expedited service, but it might be worth it if the paperwork gets overwhelming or you are short on time.
What do these commercial passport agencies offer?
These commercial agencies tend to offer more than just a single service. This is the perfect place to go when you need your first-ever passport, as they can take you through the forms with ease. They can fill out the forms with your information during a one-on-one consultation to make sure there are no errors.
For example, did you know you can be rejected for using the wrong printer ink? They aren’t going to make that mistake. They will check everything is in order and also help set up an appointment with your USPS for a cleaner process.
On top of this, the best passport services also help with travel visas, passport renewals, replacing damaged passports, or reporting one as lost or stolen. With the additional options for photos, emergency help, and children’s passports, they should be able to help you get everything in place.
What is the difference between a passport book and a passport card?
If you are new to the world of United States passports—perhaps having naturalized here recently from another country—the idea of two separate forms of ID may seem odd. Many countries have a passport book alone, with the photo ID at the back and room for stamps. But a passport card is different.
The passport card was created for Americans who frequently enter Canada or Mexico by land, or to the Caribbean islands and Bermuda by sea. The passport card CANNOT be used for international travel by air. You MUST have a passport book if you intend to travel by plane.
Get started on applying for that new passport.
In conclusion, there are three important things to take away here when learning how to get a passport:
- The passport application process requires a lot of care and information to get everything in order.
- You will have to start as early as you can because of the long processing times.
- There is help available to speed things up, either through expediting the application or working with a commercial passport agency.
Whichever route you take, make sure to have everything in order and be patient. It will be worth it when that new passport to adventure arrives.