Here’s the issue: Instead of the standard wait time of 6 to 8 weeks to get a passport, the time is now closer to 12 to 18 weeks, the State Department has said, thanks to a backlog of 1.5 million to 2 million passport requests caused by pandemic delays. Worse yet, on Wednesday evening, the State Department shut down its online appointment system after scammers were found exploiting emergency assistance bookings.
Unfortunately, travelers can’t beg at the doors of a passport office or try to throw money at the problem. The pandemic has changed the way the system works, eliminating the loopholes that once allowed for passport Hail Marys.
So who can get a passport and when? We broke down the process by scenario to help travelers navigate the document limbo.
If you have a life-or-death emergency
People who may be able to get a passport according to the pre-covid schedule are those with a life-or-death emergency. Travelers can call the appropriate passport office phone number (which changes depending on the time of day or day of the week) to make an appointment. Travelers will then need to provide proof of the emergency — such as a death certificate or letter from a hospital — as well as proof of international travel plans, along with their passport application.
Once approved, applicants can get a passport within 72 hours, or 3 business days. (That being said, the State Department still says it cannot guarantee that you’ll get your passport in time for travel.)
If you have a particularly compelling case that doesn’t fall under the standard life-or-death requirements, travel adviser Desiree Overhage says to call your U.S. representative’s office and explain your situation.
“There are success stories, where the office was able to assist in securing a rush appointment,” she says.
If you’re traveling in the next 72 hours
The only way someone can get a passport in a hurry is if they are traveling internationally in the next 72 hours and can get one of what the State Department calls “extremely limited number of appointments.” But don’t get your hopes up. With millions of travelers stuck in the passport backlog, “extremely limited” is no exaggeration.
Vlitas says a recent customer discovered his son’s passport was expired a few days before a family trip to Greece and Italy. He called the passport office appointment line from midnight to 8 a.m. to no avail.
“Unfortunately, he was not successful so we had to then help him rearrange a new trip because it just wasn’t going to happen,” Vlitas says. “There are a lot of incidences like that.”
If you can wait three months
If your trip is in the next 12-18 weeks, your situation may be a little better than those hoping to depart sooner.
Travelers can pay an additional $60 and apply for an expedited mail-in service, but they will still have to wait up to three months (six weeks for processing and six weeks for mailing, the State Department says).
Skip the third-party expedited services … for now
In the past, travelers may have turned to expensive but handy services to get passports sooner. That is not an option at this time.
“They have not opened up the expedited services for outside agencies to go and process passports,” Vlitas says.
Travelers may come across companies promising to defy the odds and get passports to customers sooner than the State Department estimates. But be warned. According to the Better Business Bureau, passport expediting scams are on the rise, costing travelers money as well as exposing them to identity theft.
“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” Laura Ratliff, editorial director of TripSavvy, says, warning travelers that any third-party service charging to expedite your passport application in a few days or weeks is probably illegitimate.
You may still want to use a legitimate third-party service like a travel adviser to handle your passport problems, even though they can’t make the process go faster.
See if you can use your expiring passport anyway
Normally, your passport needs to be valid for at least six months after the start of your trip (although requirements vary by country) to travel internationally.
But because of the bureaucratic chaos during the pandemic, many countries made agreements with the United States to extend the passport validity rule for an additional six months after expiration.
Note that your passport still needs to be valid for the duration of your trip, but unlike in pre-pandemic times, if it’s expiring within six months, you will still be able to travel.
Wait for the process to speed up
In a State Department news briefing earlier this month, spokesperson Ned Price said the government is “surging staff, and that includes both adjudicators and contractors, back into the office” and will “continue to look for ways that we might seek and be able to accelerate passport processing.”
But members of Congress are calling for more action. On July 22, 200 members of Congress signed a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the National Passport Information Center addressing the issue, Politico reported.
“There’s a lot of heat now, so the U.S. government might add more staff to try to process because now it’s become front-page news,” Vlitas says.
Postpone your trip 12 to 18 weeks
While it’s not what you want to hear, you might not be able to get a passport to salvage your summer trip.
For now, Jen Moyse, senior director of product for travel management company TripIt, says if a passport is expired or the deadline is looming, travelers should play it safe and book their international trips at least six months in advance to allow enough time to secure a usable passport.