Travel Trouble: Don’t Let Passport Problems Wreck Your Trip
Last updated May 3, 2023
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If you’re planning a trip outside the U.S. this summer and don’t already have a valid passport—or have one that will expire soon—you may have a problem.
The current standard (non-expedited) passport processing time is 10 to 13 weeks, according to the latest update from the U.S. State Department. By comparison, the processing time for those who applied before February 3 was six to nine weeks.
Processing time estimates do not include mailing times, which can add up to two weeks for your application to arrive at the passport agency and then up to another two weeks to receive a printed passport.
“It’s really [important to] think far ahead,” said Christopher Elliott, who writes the nationally syndicated On Travel and The Travel Troubleshooter columns. “So, if you want to go abroad, [and you need a new or renewed passport] you’re looking at maybe August or early September.”
For an additional $60, the State Department will expedite the process, but even that’s taking far longer than normal: The current processing time is seven to nine weeks, plus up to four weeks for mailing.
You can shorten the delivery time by sending your application by Priority Mail Express and paying extra (about $20) to receive your passport in one to two days after printing.
More Info: The State Department’s FAQ page has information about the passport application process, required documentation, and children’s passports. There’s also a page that lets you track your application status.
Why the Long Wait?
Demand for passports this year is “unprecedented,” according to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“We're getting 500,000 applications a week for a passport; that’s 30 to 40 percent above last year. So, it’s dramatic,” Blinken told a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing in March.
Last year, the State Department issued a record 22 million passport books, and “we’re on track to break that in FY 2023,” he said.
International travel dropped dramatically during the pandemic. The State Department responded to the decreased demand for passports by shifting resources. Now, Blinken said, his department has made “an intense effort” to build back the required infrastructure by hiring more staff, authorizing overtime, and opening satellite offices.
An online passport renewal program is being developed that would speed up the process for millions of Americans who already have a passport. A half million people took advantage of this online option during a pilot project last year. Blinken said the program was suspended in March to “fine-tune it and improve it.” He predicted that once the program is “fully up and running” 65 percent of passport renewals will be done online.
Options for Unexpected Travel
Sometimes, you just can’t plan international travel three or four months in advance. Here are three options:
Emergency: If it’s a life-or-death emergency that requires a trip outside the country within 72 hours, use the State Department’s emergency travel service.
Travel within nine weeks: If you haven’t applied, your appointment at a passport agency or center must be scheduled within 14 calendar days of your international travel date. If you have already applied, your appointment must be scheduled within five calendar days of your international travel date. Call the National Passport Information Center at 877-487-2778 to make an appointment. Appointments are limited and there’s no guarantee one will be available.
Courier and expeditors: These third-party companies are not part of the State Department, but some are allowed to submit passport applications on behalf of their customers, who pay hefty fees for the service. The State Department cautions that if you use one of these companies “you will not receive your passport any faster than you would if you applied in person at a passport agency or center.” Plus, you’ll be giving highly sensitive personal information to someone else, which is always potentially risky.
More Info: State Department’s Get My Passport Fast
Make Sure You Have All Required Paperwork
While most countries require Americans to present their passports at immigration control, some also require a travel visa. Without one, you won’t be able to depart the U.S.
“The worst feeling in the world is when you don’t have your papers in order, and they swipe your passport [at the airport] and say, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t let you on the plane,’” said travel writer Elliott.
That happened to him on a recent trip from Houston to Doha, Qatar, on his way to Perth, Australia. He didn’t realize he needed a passport and a travel visa.
“Fortunately, we could get the visa; we just had to go and download an app…and we got it within like five minutes,” Elliott told Checkbook. “But it’s that moment, the thinking that you’re not going to be able to travel, it’s the worst feeling.”
Some counties require foreign visitors to have passports that won’t expire until after more than six months of their arrival dates. To avoid potential travel disruptions, the State Department advises U.S. passport holders to have at least six months of validity remaining whenever they travel aboard. If that’s not the case, you should apply for a renewal.
Also, make sure your passport has a blank page for every country you plan to visit; some countries require one.
“If you’re trying to get into a place like South Africa, and you don’t have a blank page, guess what? They are going to send you back,” Elliott said. “Rules are rules.”
That’s why Elliott recommends getting a nonstandard 52-page passport (rather than the standard 28-page one), if there’s a chance you might do a lot of international traveling in the decade that passport is valid.
More from Checkbook:
- 60 Strategies for Finding the Best Travel Deals and Avoiding Trouble
- Health and Safety Info for International Trips
- Some Airlines Finally Offer Free ‘Kid-Friendly’ Seat Assignments
- Do You Need Travel Insurance? (Spoiler: For Most Trips, Probably Not)
Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He has been protecting consumers for more than 40 years, having covered the consumer beat for CBS News, The Today Show, and NBCNews.com. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.