Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that only first-time applicants need to bring photos to their passport appointment. All applicants, except those applying for additional pages for their book, are required to bring passport photos. This version has been updated.
First impressions of the new Washington Passport Agency in Foggy Bottom: It looks like a bank set in an airport terminal.
Trust me, this is a high compliment; the old facility just above K Street NW resembled the DMV on a dreary day.
On Oct. 28, the State Department moved its expedited passport agency and visa office a half-mile south on 19th Street NW, from No. 1111 to No. 600. The geographical distance is slight, but the improvements in operations and aesthetics are substantial.
“We have 20 percent more seating and 90 percent more capacity to move people through,” said Paul Peek, director of the Washington Passport Agency, which serves Washington, Maryland and Virginia. “We’re more efficient because our space is more efficient.”
The center handles urgent cases only: folks who need a passport before an international trip starting in less than two weeks or who must obtain a foreign visa within a month’s time. Travelers-to-be must make an appointment (call 877-487-2778), though the agency will accept walk-ins who can show proof of imminent travel. Applicants must present a copy of their itinerary, proof of citizenship, a photo ID, the proper application form(s) and passport-size photos.
Unlike the old location, an outlier lost in the scrum of other businesses, the new office inhabits a stately structure (the former World Bank building) and announces itself with large lettering, patriotic colors and oversize images of eagles. Before, visitors often had to squish into the cramped entryway while awaiting their turn through the metal detector. On especially busy days, they’d queue up on the sidewalk. Now, the lobby is spacious enough to accommodate a large number of people and their bundles of nerves.
“It feels more professional,” Peek said of the new design, “more State Department.”
To save time, Peek encourages travelers to fill out the form online, a strategy that could also minimize mistakes: All online applications receive a bar code containing the individual’s information. (Note: Don’t sign it until you meet with a specialist.) However, those who didn’t prep in advance can find instructions and forms for every scenario (lost or stolen book, renewal, additional pages, etc.) in the entrance hall. More forms reside inside.
After security, the applicant enters a large main room fitted with two flat-screen TVs (on-air: CNN), tidy rows of seats, several counters with lots of elbow room, and an airy atrium skylight. The layout is clean and streamlined, with a dominant palette of silver, white and dusty blue. Bold signs guide visitors: Follow the arrow to “Passport Check In,” “Diplomatic Reception” or “Passport Will Call.”
A series of staffed windows line the wall in an L shape, with two stations (and potentially four, if demand is high) dedicated to visitors checking in for their appointments and 18 spots specializing in adjudication services, such as the submission and review of the traveler’s documents and payment. For each case, the agent meets with the applicant and reviews his or her paperwork. If the information is complete, the individual receives a receipt and a pickup time, which can be as early as that afternoon.
“It’s based on need, like an emergency room,” said Peek, adding that the agency’s goal for this year is to reduce on-site visit times to 30 minutes or less.
The office can handle so many clock-is-ticking cases (several hundred per day during summer peak season) because of its in-house processing and printing capabilities. Upstairs, staff members scan the traveler’s application, input the data and print the info onto a foil that is placed into the passport “like a T-shirt iron-on,” explained Peek. An employee performs a quality-control check before returning the completed document to the first floor via a dumbwaiter.
“We are personalizing the books,” he said, “not printing them.”
As one who has flirted with disaster — a nearly expired book paired with an approaching international trip — I welcome the spruced-up setting. The bright interior and adept arrangement helps soothe frayed nerves.
Despite its attractiveness, though, I don’t want to make a habit of visiting the Washington Passport Agency — and neither should you.