How to Get a U.S. Passport: Everything You Need to Know

How to Get a U.S. Passport - close up of man holding globe in his hand at beach

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If you’re a U.S. resident traveling within America, a state-issued driver’s licence or ID card is all you need for air travel. Come October 2021, your licence will need to be REAL ID compliant, but that isn’t a huge change.

International travel, on the other hand, is a different story. If you have your heart set on sightseeing in Paris or touring Shanghai, you’ll need a valid passport to board your flight, no exceptions.

Personally, I can’t think of a better investment. A U.S. passport is valid for 10 years and grants holders visa-free entry to more than 100 countries. Think of the travel possibilities!

In this short guide, we’ll share everything you need to know about applying for a U.S. passport.

When to Apply for a U.S. Passport

First things first: When should you apply for a U.S. passport? That depends how soon you need it.

In general, you should apply at least eight weeks before your trip. Routine processing times run six to eight weeks, so you want to give yourself some wiggle room in case there is a delay.

If your travel dates are three to eight weeks out, you can expedite your application for a fee, and receive your passport in two to three weeks.

For special circumstances, even faster service is available. If you have “urgent international travel plans” in less than three weeks’ time, you can make an appointment at a passport agency or center and receive your passport within eight business days. However, this carries a fee and requires proof of travel.

For life or death emergencies, passports can be issued within 72 hours by contacting the State Department for an appointment. But if you need to get your passport quickly and don’t have an emergency, a third-party service like TravelVisa Pro can get it in your hands ASAP — for an extra fee, of course.

Note: Due to COVID-19, expedited service is temporarily suspended as of March 20, 2020. Applicants should expect delays in routine processing times.

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How to Apply for a Passport

When you’re ready to apply for a passport, you need to take five key steps:

  1. Complete form DS-11 Application for U.S. Passport, available on the State Department website
  2. Collect identification and relevant documents
  3. Get your photo taken
  4. Submit form, supporting documentation, and picture in person
  5. Pay your fees

How to Fill Out the Passport Application Form

If you’re applying for a U.S. passport for the first time, you’ll need to fill out form DS-11 Application for U.S. Passport, available on the Department of State’s website. You’ll also need this form if your last passport was:

  • Issued when you were under 16
  • Issued more than 15 years ago
  • Lost or stolen

If you’re renewing your passport, there’s a different process. See the State Department website for more details. (Spoiler alert: You can often mail your application!)

You can complete form DS-11 online, then print and sign it. The cool thing about the online form is that it populates the correct form based on the info you enter. So if you input something that indicates you should be using a different form, it switches to the correct one.

After printing a completed form, you can’t make any changes other than signing it. Your printed form includes a unique barcode, so making handwritten changes after the barcode is generated could result in delays.

You can also download and print a blank form and fill it out by hand. Unfortunately, there is no way to send in the DS-11 form online or by mail. You’re looking at a face-to-face visit. (When you renew in the future, you should be able to mail your application).

Identification You Need to Apply for a Passport

When submitting form DS-11 to apply for a passport, you’ll need to provide two types of identification: primary evidence of U.S. citizenship and photo identification.

Primary evidence of U.S. citizenship usually means a U.S. passport (can be expired) or a U.S. birth certificate. If you were born outside the U.S., it also includes:

  • A Consular Report of Birth Abroad or Birth Certification
  • Certificate of Naturalization
  • Certificate of Citizenship

For photo identification, most people use state-issued driver’s licences or ID cards, although any of the below are acceptable:

How to Get a Passport - screenshot of accepted forms of photo identification

If you can’t provide one of these primary forms of photo ID, you can provide at least two secondary pieces. See the State Department website for further information.

You’ll also need to submit photocopies of the front and the back of your proof of U.S. citizenship, as well as of your photo ID, each on separate sheets.

Where to Get Your Passport Picture Taken

Technically, anyone can take your passport photo. Well, except you — no selfies allowed. It needs to meet the following criteria to be accepted:

  • Color
  • High resolution
  • Undamaged
  • 2 x 2 inches
  • Head must be between 1 and 1 3/8 inches from the bottom of the chin to the top of the head

That said, it might be easier to get your photo taken somewhere that routinely does passport photos. It isn’t expensive, and they comply with the required standards. That means your photo is much less likely to be rejected. A rejected photo can delay your application, which can in turn delay your travel plans. No, thanks!

Costco members can get passport photos for $5.99, which might be the best deal in town. But you can also get them at Walgreens, CVS, UPS, FedEx, and elsewhere, usually for about $15 or less.

Note that you can’t wear glasses, a hat, or jewelry that covers any of your face in your passport photo (exemptions available for religious head coverings). You also can’t wear a uniform. Just dress in normal, everyday clothes.

Where to Apply for a Passport

When you’re ready to apply for a passport, you’ll need to bring your completed application form, required identification, and color photo to a passport agency or passport acceptance facility.

Where exactly is that? Well, it depends where you live. Many post offices and government offices accept passport applications. So do clerks of court and many public libraries.

Luckily, the Department of State provides a tool for locating the nearest acceptance facility. You can find it here.

How Much Does a Passport Cost?

If you’re an adult applying for a passport for the first time, you’re looking at $145 for the routine processing time. That includes the application fee ($110) and the execution fee ($35). The application fee is payable to the U.S. Department of State, while the execution fee is paid to the facility that accepts it. For expedited service, there’s an additional $60 fee.

That said, don’t think you can just turn up with your favorite travel rewards credit card and pay your fees. If you apply at a passport agency, you’re good to go with most payment methods, but there a couple of caveats. Only Mastercard and Visa debit cards are accepted, and if you’re paying cash, you need exact change.

Meanwhile, if you apply at a passport acceptance facility, things are a little wonkier. The application fee, as well as any additional fees, are payable only by a check or money order made out to the U.S. Department of State. Yup, you read that right. No credit or debit cards accepted at all.

For the execution fee, money orders are accepted at all locations, and some take cash, check, or credit card.

Once your fees are paid and your paperwork is submitted, all that’s left for you to do is sit back and wait for your brand-new passport to arrive in the mail. Then the real fun begins!

How to Get a U.S. Passport Pin - closeup of man holding out a globe in his hand at the beach

We’d love to hear about your travel plans! Once you have that passport in hand, where are you heading?

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