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U.S. officials say they have worked through an initial backlog of passport applications and expect to return to normal processing times this fall. (iStock)

State Department officials say now is a good time to renew an expired passport or apply for a new one, though dozens of countries still do not admit most American tourists because of coronavirus fears.

A large backlog of passport applications that was waiting to be processed when the Bureau of Consular Affairs, which also handles visas, went into lockdown in mid-March has been tackled. Passport processors are now chipping away at applications that have arrived since then.

The slowdown caused by the pandemic hit passport operations particularly hard. Most State Department employees in the United States and overseas have been teleworking, but passports cannot be processed at home for security reasons. So almost 1.8 million applications that were in the pipeline just sat there for three months.

Now, after resuming operations on a limited basis in mid-June, officials say they have worked through the initial backlog and expect to return to normal processing times this fall.

“We’ve gotten through essentially all of the backlog work, and now we’re getting back to a regular rhythm,” Ian Brownlee, the principal deputy in Consular Affairs, said this week in a video chat on the future of international travel hosted on the travel website The Points Guy. “If you’re thinking of traveling nine months out, why not apply now? The thing’s good for 10 years.”

Despite the optimistic outlook, there are still delays. The State Department says it currently takes about 10 weeks to process a passport, from application to delivery in the mail. That’s up from the six to eight weeks it typically took before the pandemic brought almost everything to a halt and the State Department stopped issuing expedited passports, which for an extra fee can get a passport in just two or three weeks.

In the pre-pandemic days, an average of 1.5 million passports were issued every month. In normal times, the 1.8 million passports lined up in mid-March would barely be a blip, but it became a high bar to clear with so many passport processors sent home.

In a sign of the high priority the State Department gives to getting Americans passports —even in a time when few can use them —all passport processors have been declared “mission critical employees.” But the passport centers where they work are only opening gradually, after local health authorities say it is safe for workers to return.

To a certain degree, the progress has been helped by the devastating impact the global pandemic has had on international travel. State Department statistics have shown a marked slowdown in passport applications as the number of people traveling overseas has dwindled. Fewer than 1 million applications are somewhere in the process, waiting to be issued. In the last week in August, for example, 919,000 applications were waiting, 168,000 passports were issued and 151,000 new applications arrived.

That is half the number that were queued up in March but still far from normal. Just 10 of the State Department’s 25 passport centers around the United States are in the second of a three-phase reopening.

For applicants, there is little difference between phases one and two. Both are accepting applications only from people with appointments who need the document in the next 72 hours, for life-or-death emergencies. But the centers in Phase 2 have more staff on hand to process applications.

So far, no passport center is in Phase 3, the final step before returning to normal. In that phase, all staff return to work out of the office, and a limited number of appointments will be available to travelers leaving the country within two weeks.

Expedited processing will resume only when every passport center is in Phase 3, or the workload nationwide has returned to normal levels.

In the meantime, renewals and new applications can be mailed in, and they will be handled in the order in which they arrive, State Department officials say.

The State Department has dropped a worldwide advisory to avoid all international travel because of the pandemic. But many countries still ban most Americans.

In an Aug. 6 briefing reporters, Carl Risch, the assistant secretary for Consular Affairs, predicted a return to a normal rate of processing passports by late September or early October.

“We want the American people to know that we’re working aggressively to resume normal passport operations and to address covid-19-related processing delays,” he said.