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Ins and Outs of Getting Your Passport in Order

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 2009

Applying for a passport can be a confounding experience. Here are some answers to common questions.

How far in advance do I need to apply for a passport?

It can never be too soon, whether or not you have a foreign trip planned. Obviously, with a passport in hand you can leave with little notice. However, if your passport is nearing its expiration date, renew as soon as possible, because some countries require passports to be valid six months after a traveler's entry or departure date. Another issue to consider: Some nations require passports to have at least four blank pages for visas and stamps.

Where can I find passport information?

The U.S. State Department is the official source, and the passport section of its Web site (http://travel.state.gov/passport/passport_1738.html) clearly outlines the process, requirements, fees, etc. It also includes updates, such as information on the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative and passport cards (see below for more information).

Can I apply by mail?

Not if you're a first-timer. Mail-ins are for renewers whose old passports are not damaged, stolen or expired, and were issued within the past 15 years. The passport also must have been issued after your 16th birthday and must state your current name or a name change that you can legally prove. In addition, if you are behind in child-support payments, your renewal could be stymied.

To renew a passport, send in a padded envelope a DS-82 application form (available on the State Department's Web site and in any number of passport facilities, including post offices and courts), your most recent passport, two identical 2-by-2-inch color photos taken within the past six months and a $75 check made out to the Department of State (type or print your full name and date of birth on the front of the check). If your name has changed, also include a certified copy of the marriage certificate or court order. Mail to National Passport Processing Center, P.O. Box 90155, Philadelphia, Pa. 19190-0155.

Mail-in passports typically arrive within four to six weeks, barring a natural disaster or other unforeseen incident. At press time, the State Department was anticipating three weeks for processing; check its Web site for updates. In addition, hold off on the wake for your old passport: Your dog-eared, stamp-plastered document will be returned for future gloating purposes.

Who must apply in person, and what is the process?

If any of the following apply, head to your nearest passport facility.

· You're a first-time applicant.

· Your passport was lost, stolen or damaged. (For lost or stolen passports, you must also submit form DS-64 and report the loss by calling 877-487-2778.)

· Your old passport expired and was issued more than 15 years ago or when you were younger than 16.

· Your name has changed since your last passport was issued and you do not have the legal documentation to prove it.

Application materials include form DS-11 (but unlike the mail-in, do not sign it until the official gives the word); proof of U.S. citizenship, such as a birth certificate; personal identification, such as a valid driver's license or military ID; two 2-by-2-inch color photos taken in the past six months; and payment of $100 (16 and older) or $85 (younger than 16).

Where do I go to apply in person?

There are more than 9,000 passport acceptance facilities nationwide, including many federal, state and probate courts, post offices, public libraries, and county and municipal offices. The department's Web site offers a search feature (http://iafdb.travel.state.gov) so you can find an outpost in your neighborhood. In the District, for example, the post offices at 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW and 1050 Connecticut Ave. NW provide such services. Hours may be limited and/or by appointment, so check ahead.

Do children need to carry passports?

Every underage American, from newborns to teenagers, must possess a passport to leave the country. All minors must apply in person and submit the appropriate form (good ol' DS-11) and photos. In addition, those younger than 16 must be accompanied by both parents or guardians, who must show proof of relationship (such as a U.S. birth certificate displaying both parents' names) as well as an official ID. If there is only one parent present, he or she must submit a notarized Statement of Consent (form DS-3053) from the other parent, or primary evidence of sole legal custody.

Sixteen- and 17-year-olds also must appear in person with a parent or guardian, who will be asked to establish parental consent and present a photo ID if the minor does not have proper identification.

I'm in a hurry -- my trip is in a few weeks! How can I rush the process?

For expedited service, you can apply by mail or in person. For the mail-in, send in the requisite materials, plus an additional $60. Write "Expedited" on the envelope and include your date of departure. To ensure timely delivery (two weeks door-to-door), two-way overnight service is strongly suggested.

If you're leaving in two weeks or less, don't risk the mail. Instead, make an appointment with a passport agency. Bring with you all of the necessary documents and the extra $60. In Washington, the center is at 1111 19th St. NW and is open weekdays 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Schedule an appointment via automated service at 877-487-2778.

For even faster -- but costlier -- service, employ a private company that can deliver your passport in a jiffy, within, say, 24 hours. American Passport and Visa International (888-848-2784, http://www.apvi.net), for one, lists such options as Same Day Passport Processing ($250 plus government fee), Urgent ($199 plus fee), Rush ($145 plus fee) and Standard ($55 plus fee). Other companies promising quick turnarounds include American Passport Express (800-455-5166, http://www.americanpassport.com) and Urgent Passport and Visas (866-334-8472, http://www.urgentpassportandvisa.com).

How do I change the name on my passport so that it matches my plane ticket and other forms of ID?

If you sport a new name, your passport must reflect that change. For passports issued less than a year ago, submit by mail your valid passport, form DS-5504, a pristine photocopy of your marriage certificate or court-decreed name change and two photos if more than 90 days have passed since the issuance of your passport. The service is free. Mail to the National Passport Processing Center, P.O. Box 90107, Philadelphia, Pa. 19190-0107.

For passports obtained more than a year ago, use form DS-82 and attach a $75 check. Mail to the National Passport Processing Center, P.O. Box 90155, Philadelphia, Pa. 19190-0155.

How do I add extra pages?

If you have fewer than four visa pages in your passport, you can request extra sheets for no additional cost. Mail in your current book and form DS-4085. Send to the National Passport Processing Center, P.O. Box 90106, Philadelphia, Pa. 19190-0106. If you are a frequent traveler applying for a renewal and wish to request extra pages, attach a signed note for additional pages to your DS-82 form.

Do I need a passport for every foreign country? Is there an alternative document I can use to cross borders?

With the recent introduction of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, Americans can no longer simply flash a valid ID when traveling to the Caribbean (excepting U.S. domains, such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands), Mexico, Canada and Bermuda. For air travel, you must present a passport when flying between the United States and those countries. For land and sea travel, the WHTI is expected to be fully implemented on June 1; until then, Americans must carry proof of their identification and American citizenship when traveling by bus, car, train, cruise ship, etc.

If you don't want to lug around your passport, the State Department in July started issuing passport cards, wallet-size IDs good for land crossings and sea ports of entry, but not for air. The card costs less than a passport -- $45 for first-time adult passport applicants, $20 for current passport holders and $35 for minors younger than 16 -- but is valid for the same amount of time (10 years for an adult and five years for children younger than 16). Processing takes about three weeks. First-timers must apply in person; renewals can be submitted by mail.

Where can I find additional help?

For advice or a status report on your application, call the National Passport Information Center at 877-487-2778 or check online at http://https://passportstatus.state.gov/opss/OPSS_Status_i.asp. The site lets you know whether your application has been received and about when to expect your passport. Currently, it is taking five to seven days for an application to be tracked online.

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