Skip to main content
By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How to make sure your documents are up-to-date for the return of travel

Travel may finally be on the horizon. Do you have your essentials in order?

Placeholder while article actions load

With 2020 behind us, travelers are dreaming of taking trips again. The long year at home has given travelers time to think about where they’ll go next, and the coronavirus vaccine rollout is giving people hope that they may actually get to go soon.

To best prepare for the return of travel, whenever it comes, you may want to get your travel documents in order. Even if you’re not planning on hitting the road (or sky, or sea) any time soon, it may be in your best interest to act early. Because of the pandemic, some government agencies that process highly important items are operating slower than normal.

These health-care workers are vaccinated. They shared their dream trips once travel is safe again.

Passports & passport cards

For months last year, it was impossible for travelers to get a passport as the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs went into lockdown. Once the offices reopened in June, the bureau began chipping away at a massive backlog of applications and promised passports back in about 10 weeks.

When travelers go online to apply for a passport now, the State Department website notes that staffing and temporary facility closures may cause a small percentage of routine applications to take more than 12 weeks to process, but most people should expect to get their passport in 10 to 12 weeks, or pay $60 to have it expedited in four to six weeks.

“There are still delays; I’m a little disappointed with processing times,” says David Alwadish, the founder of the ItsEasy passport agency.

Alwadish tells clients that passports may come back in around 10 to 13 weeks. He recommends those seeking expedited passports apply about five weeks early and warns that getting an appointment at a passport office has still been a struggle for some clients, as has getting life-or-death emergency passports approved.

FedEx Office passport services expects the same. Charlie Cobb, the COO of Expedited Travel, says customers can expect standard processing times to be about 10 to 12 weeks.

“The current processing times are slower than the previous ‘standard’ processing times,' ” Cobb said in an email. “COVID is certainly still impacting the passport processing times provided at the Passport Agencies. However, there are 4-6 week expediting services available.”

As for passport cards, Alwadish says travelers can expect the same processing time as a regular passport.

7 questions about getting your passport during the pandemic, answered

Real ID

The pandemic bumped the deadline for U.S. air travelers needing a Real ID credential for domestic flights to Oct. 1, 2021. Those who have recently applied for a Real ID say they haven’t experienced significant delays. Travelers must make an in-person appointment at their local DMV to apply.

What is a Real ID? The Department of Homeland Security says the identification is being implemented to combat forgery and fraud. If you don’t get one by the deadline and need to travel domestically, you can use a passport at security check-in instead.

Do you have questions about Real ID? We’ve got answers.

TSA PreCheck

Although air travel is still down considerably, passenger numbers are ramping back up. Empty airports may be a thing of the past by the time you fly next, and TSA PreCheck will get you through airport security quicker. The $85 membership lasts for five years. (FYI, some travel credit cards, like Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Capital One Venture Rewards Card, will cover the cost of PreCheck.)

According to Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein, there is no lag time in getting approved for PreCheck at this time.

Why TSA PreCheck is a better idea than ever

“I have to say that now, more than ever, is an ideal time to enroll or renew because doing so reduces touchpoints at the checkpoints, allowing members to travel with ease,” Farbstein said in an email. “Members of TSA PreCheck can leave their shoes on, lightweight jackets on, belts on and they can leave their electronics and 3-1-1 liquids bags in their carry-on bags. This reduces touchpoints between those belongings and checkpoint bins — especially important during a pandemic.”

Farbstein says that instead of walking into an enrollment center, travelers should complete the application online first, then schedule their 10-minute in-person appointment to take care of a background check and fingerprinting.

Global Entry

If you want to get Global Entry, be prepared to wait. Some travelers are lamenting nearly year-long wait times between when they’re conditionally approved and their in-person interview appointment. Once you have been conditionally approved, schedule that appointment on the Trusted Traveler Programs website.

Other travelers are skipping that interview wait by doing Enrollment on Arrival when they get to a U.S. airport from abroad, although this service isn’t available at all airports.

And like with TSA PreCheck, some travel credit cards will reimburse customers for the one-time $100 Global Entry application fee.

Read more:

Tips: Advice column | Coronavirus testing | Sanitizing your hotel | Using Uber and Airbnb |

Flying: Pandemic packing | Airport protocol | Staying healthy on plane | Fly or drive | Layovers

Road trips: Tips | Rental cars | Best snacks | Long-haul trains | Rest stops | Cross-country drive

Destinations: Puerto Rico | Hawaii | Private islands | 10 covid-free spots | Caribbean | Mexico