When Marquita Wright recently applied for a long-term visa to visit China, she had a problem. The Chinese Embassy required her to hand over her U.S. passport, and it would be weeks before she got the visa and her materials were returned. In the meantime, Wright had to fly to Europe.

“I needed a second passport to travel,” says Wright, a business development manager for a conveyor belt manufacturer from New Orleans.

But can you get a duplicate passport? Little-known fact: Yes, you can. And as Americans start planning more international trips, maybe you should, say travel experts.

The U.S. State Department allows citizens to obtain a second passport under certain circumstances. You need a valid U.S. passport and have to meet a short list of additional requirements.

That’s what Wright did. She applied for a second passport using the State Department’s Form DS-82 passport renewal application. She had to send a separate written statement detailing the reasons for needing the passport and pay a $110 fee. A few weeks later, Wright received her second passport.

“If you travel frequently to countries that need your passport to get a visa, I would recommend getting a second passport,” she says.

What are the reasons? A prolonged processing delay in getting a visa or the need for multiple visas are the most common reasons for requesting duplicate passports. Restrictive entry policies in one of the countries you’re visiting, where a stamp from one country would get you barred from another, is also a valid reason. If you say you want a second passport only as a backup, your application will not be approved, according to the State Department.

“Our policy for issuing second passports aims to reduce barriers to international travel in extraordinary circumstances,” explains Jill Barwig, a State Department spokeswoman. “Second passports are an exception to our issuance policy, which requires that travelers maintain only one valid passport at a time, protecting not only the integrity of the U.S. passport, but also the identity of the passport bearer.”

Elizabeth Ricci, an immigration attorney based in Tallahassee, says those who apply for second passports are typically business travelers. But this option is becoming increasingly attractive to leisure travelers, too. Although she acknowledges that a second passport isn’t meant to be used as a backup, Ricci says it can offer a sense of safety for frequent travelers.

“It eliminates the need for an emergency visit to a U.S. Embassy in case of theft or loss,” she says.

A second passport costs $110, the same as a replacement passport. The State Department publishes a fee calculator on its site that will help you determine the exact price, based on passport type and processing method. Second passports are only valid for up to four years.

One common misconception is that you need a second passport to enter a Middle Eastern country if you’ve been to Israel. I checked with Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, and a representative told me that’s not an issue anymore. Israel now issues a stamped card that you can remove from your passport to show immigration officials.

Not all countries make it this easy, and a second passport can help with that.

“China does not prohibit entry for travelers with a stamp from Turkey, but they’ll likely pull the traveler aside and ask questions,” says Victoria Santiago, a supervisor in Corporate Travel Management’s passports and visas department. Likewise, she says, having a stamp from Afghanistan might make it “difficult” to enter many countries, so having a second passport without it would make the trip through the immigration line a little smoother.

Janice Lintz, a frequent traveler, swears by her second passport. It came in particularly handy when she needed a visa for Eritrea. Processing can take up to a month. She used a visa processing agency to move her second passport from one embassy to another, and because she had another one, she could still travel internationally.

“Having a second passport helps,” says Lintz, an accessibility consultant from New York.

Still, a second passport has its risks. That’s what Vicki Liston discovered when she tried to renew her passport — one of three U.S. passports that she had. Liston had two standard passports and an official passport for her work as a civilian employee of the government.

“Those three passports landed me a flag on my FBI file, which I didn’t know about until I went to renew one of them and it was taking longer than expected,” says Liston, a voice actor from St. Louis. “Since I was traveling for humanitarian assistance purposes and all of my travel was aboveboard, I wasn’t concerned about getting into trouble. It was just a little weird.”

When should you consider getting a second passport? It depends on how soon you’ll be traveling, says Warren Jaferian, dean of international education at Endicott College in Massachusetts.

According to the State Department, processing times are the same whether you’re applying for a first or second passport. (Regular is eight to 11 weeks, and expedited service is five to seven weeks.) You can find the latest times on the State Department’s “Processing Times” page. If you can prove you have an emergency — you’ll need to show proof of your travel plans — you may be able to get it in a matter of days.

“It depends on the situation, reason, urgency — and a bit of luck,” he says.

Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at chris@elliott.org.

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