Applying for a passport should be simple, but with so many scenarios -- from replacing chewed-up passports to expedited service -- the process can be confounding. Here are some answers to common questions.
Q How much advance time do I need to apply for a passport?
A It can never be too soon -- whether you have a foreign trip planned or not. Obviously, with a passport in hand, you can jet off with little notice. However, if you've been putting off your application, be aware that some countries do not accept a freshly cut passport and require at least six months' validity.
Where can I find passport information?
The U.S. State Department is the official source, and its Web site (www.travel.state.gov) clearly outlines the process, requirements, fees, etc. It also includes updates, such as the recent closing of the New Orleans Passport Agency, which affected the applications of many in Virginia (except for Northern Virginia).
Can I apply by mail?
Not if you're a first-timer. Mail-ins are for renewals whose old passports are not damaged and were issued within the past 15 years. The passport must also have been issued after your 16th birthday, and there must be no name change that you cannot legally prove.
To renew a passport, send in a padded envelope a DS-82 form (available on the U.S. State Department's Web site or at post offices or travel agencies; see below); your most recent passport; two identical 2-by-2-inch passport photos; and a $67 check made out to the U.S. Department of State. If your name has changed, also include a certified copy of the legal document specifying the change (e.g., marriage license, adoption papers, etc.). Mail to the National Passport Center at the address on the form. This address is changing at the end of October, so check the Web site for the new address to avoid delays.
You can also request a larger, 48-page passport for no extra fee; simply attach a signed request to your application. Your new passport should arrive within six weeks (for expedited service, see below). And yes, your dog-eared, stamp-plastered passport will be returned for future gloating purposes.
Who must apply in person, and what's the process?
Here's the checklist. If you answer yes to any of these, 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 the legal documentation to prove it.
* You're a minor, 14 to 17 years old. A parent or legal guardian (with their own ID) must be present if the teenager does not have acceptable identification. For children under 14, 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 the mail-in, do not sign it until the passport official gives the word; proof of U.S. citizenship, including a birth or naturalization certificate, among other official documents; personal identification, such as a valid driver's license or military ID; two 2-by-2-inch passport photos taken within the past six months; and payment of $97 (16 and older) or $82 (younger than 16).
Where do I go to apply in person?
There are more than 7,000 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 locate outposts in your neighborhood. In D.C., 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'm in a hurry -- my trip is in two weeks!
For expedited service, you can apply by mail or in person at an acceptance facility or a passport agency. For the mail-in, send in the requisite materials plus an additional $60 and overnight delivery costs. Write "Expedited" on the envelope and include your departure date and travel plans on the application. No proof of departure is required. To ensure timely delivery -- two weeks door-to-door -- splurge on two-way overnight delivery. To find an acceptance agency, go the department's Web site and type your zip code into "Where to Apply."
If you're leaving in two weeks or less, don't risk the mail and instead make an appointment with a Passport Agency. Bring with you all of the necessary documents, plus plane tickets or an airline itinerary and the extra $60. In Washington, the center is at 1111 19th St. NW and 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 a private company that can deliver your passport in a jiffy, say 24 hours. Instant Passport, for one, lists turnaround times of one to six business days ($149, on top of government fees) and seven to 20 days ($109). Info: 800-284-2564, www.instantpassport.com. Other firms include American Passport Express (800-841-6778, www.americanpassport.com) and PassportsVisaExpress.com (888-596-6028, www.passportvisaexpress.com).
Where can I find additional help?
For advice or a status report on your application, contact the National Passport Information Center at 877-487-2778 or through the State Department at http://travel.state.gov/passport/get/status/status_2567.html. The site will let you know if your application has been received by Passport Services and about when to expect your completed passport.
Any other tips?
Be sure to fill out the emergency page of the passport. Then, make copies of your passport and pack at least one in your carry-on, along with two passport photos for emergencies. You might also want to leave one copy with a friend in the States, so they can fax it over in case of theft or loss. . . . Sign up for the U.S. State Department's free Travel Registration service (https://travel registration.state.gov/ibrs), so the government knows of your whereabouts and can assist you in an emergency . . . . Jot down the contact numbers and addresses of the U.S. embassies or consulates in your foreign destinations -- you never know when you'll need an American friend abroad . . . And finally, be sure your passport is machine-readable; look for a series of numbers and/or letters and some unintelligible squiggles beneath your bio data.