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Passport questions and answers

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010; F05

Q When do I need to carry a passport?

A Basically for all foreign travel, with a few caveats.

Last year, the U.S. State Department implemented the final phase of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, requiring Americans to carry a passport or an accepted alternative when traveling by air, sea or land to Bermuda, Mexico, Canada and 17 Caribbean nations. U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam are exempt, as are closed-loop cruises that begin and end in U.S. ports.

Under the WHTI, children younger than 16 traveling to the above destinations by land or sea can continue to use their U.S. birth certificate (original or copy) or another form of citizenship to reenter the States. Additionally, U.S. passport cards valid for sea and land crossings (note: not air) are available to travelers of all ages. Cost is $45 for first-time adult applicants, $35 for first-timers younger than 16 and $20 for travelers who already carry a valid passport. For application info, see http://travel.state.gov/passport/ppt_card/ppt_card_3926.html.

Other WHTI-compliant documents include Trusted Traveler Cards, U.S. Military ID with travel orders, and Native American photo ID cards.

How much advance time 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 on short notice. However, if your passport is nearing its expiration date, renew as soon as possible, because some countries require passports to be valid for six months after a traveler's entry or return date. Another issue to consider: Some nations require passports to have two to four blank pages for visas and stamps.

Can I apply by mail?

Not if you're a first-timer. Mail-ins are for renewers whose old passports were issued within the past 15 years and have not been damaged or stolen or haven't expired. The passport also must have been issued after your 16th birthday, and there must be no name change for which you do not have legal proof.

To renew a passport, place a DS-82 application form (available on the State Department's Web site, at post offices and at travel agencies; see below), your most recent passport, two identical 2-by-2-inch passport photos and a check for $75 (see below for upcoming price hikes) made out to the U.S. Department of State in a padded envelope. If your name has changed, also include a certified copy of the legal document specifying the change (e.g., marriage license, court decree, etc.).

Mail to National Passport Processing, P.O. Box 13408, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101-3408. If you use a mail service that does not deliver to post office boxes, send to National Passport Processing, Attn: Department 13349, 1617 Brett Rd., New Castle, Del. 19720.

You can also receive extra visa pages in your passport at no additional cost; attach a signed request for additional pages with your application. Your new passport should arrive within four to six weeks. And fret not: Your dog-eared, stamp-plastered passport will be returned for future gloating purposes.

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

If any of the following apply to you, then head to your nearest passport facility:

-- You're a first-time applicant.

-- Your passport was lost, stolen or damaged. (If it was lost or stolen, you must also complete form DS-64.)

-- 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 a court order or marriage certificate reflecting the change.

-- You're a minor, 14 to 17 years old. A parent or legal guardian (with his or her own ID) must be present if the teenager does not have acceptable identification. Parental consent also may be requested. For children younger than 16, consent and/or appearance by both parents or legal guardians is required, as is proof of relationship (e.g., their names on the child's certified birth certificate).

And yes, even newborns and toddlers need a passport and must be present when their parents apply on their behalf.

Application materials include form DS-11 (but unlike with the mail-in, do not sign it until the passport official gives the word); proof of U.S. citizenship, such as a birth or naturalization certificate; personal identification, such as a valid driver's license or military ID; two 2-by-2-inch passport 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 9,400 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 (http://iafdb.travel.state.gov) will help you find outposts in your neighborhood. In the District, for example, the post offices at 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW and 3430 Connecticut Ave. NW provide such services, but only during specific hours or by appointment, so check ahead.

I heard that the State Department is considering raising fees. What are the new prices and when will they go into effect?

The agency has not yet announced an effective date, but here are the proposed fees:

-- First-time passport for adults (age 16 and older): $135

-- Passport renewal for adults: $110

-- Passport for minors (younger than 16): $105

-- First-time passport card for adults: $55

-- Passport card for adults who hold a valid passport: $30

-- Passport card for minors: $40

-- Additional visa pages: $82

I'm in a hurry -- my trip is in a few weeks!

For expedited service, you can apply by mail or in person. For the mail-in, send in the requisite materials plus an additional $60 and overnight delivery costs. Write "Expedited" on the envelope; no proof of departure is required. To ensure timely delivery -- two or three weeks door-to-door -- splurge on two-way overnight delivery.

If you're leaving in two weeks or sooner, don't risk the mail. Instead, make an appointment with a Regional Passport Agency. Bring all the necessary documents and the extra $60 with you. In Washington, the center is at 1111 19th St. NW; it is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. You can schedule an appointment via automated service at 877-487-2778.

For even faster -- but costlier -- service, employ American Passport and Visa International (866-848-2784, www.apvi.net), a private company that can deliver your passport in a jiffy, say 24 hours. For the one-day process, the company charges a first-time applicant $199, plus government fees; for delivery within six to nine business days, the price is $75, plus fees. Other companies of this ilk include PassportVisaExpress.com (703-351-0992, http://www.passportvisaexpress.com) and All American Passports (888-930-8889, http://www.allamericanpassports.com).

Where can I find official passport information and additional help?

The U.S. State Department is the official source, and its Web site (http://travel.state.gov/passport) clearly outlines the process, requirements, fees, etc., and posts announcements.

For advice or a status report on your application, contact 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 will let you know whether your application has been received by Passport Services and about when to expect your passport. Currently, it is taking about a week to 10 days for an application to be tracked online.

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