It’s time to begin planning your next vacation. You make a list and check it twice. Wait. You’re not Santa. The vacation list definitely gets checked more than twice. It’s a smart idea to make a list that includes where you might want to go, what time of the year fits your schedule, and plenty of other details. If you’re considering a getaway out of the United States, “find and check passports,” should be at the very top of your list. Seems obvious, but without a lot of thought I can think of three families who, at the last minute, realized passports had expired and the stress of the passport renewal process took years off their lives. One of those families was mine.
Imagine my surprise when, by complete luck, I realized my daughter’s passport had expired leaving our long-awaited family vacation in jeopardy. “Nothing to worry about,” I told my wife and daughter. “We’re not traveling for nearly three months. We’ll just fill out the forms and expedite the application.” Even with the massive delays caused by Covid, two weeks later we received a letter stating the application had been denied due to a problem with the picture.
Within minutes of reading the letter we were having another picture taken and overnighted the form and picture back to the passport application office. “No problem, we’ll certainly have it back in two months,” I reassured my anxious family. I had no idea how much stress and anxiety that was coming my way over this passport renewal.
Two weeks before the start of vacation, we still hadn’t received the passport. I checked the online status which read no more than, “your application has been received.” A call to the passport office didn’t get me any more information. My application was received, there was no way to know where this specific application was in the pile, and there was no way to expedite it beyond what I had already done.
Fortunately, thanks to my local Congressman’s office, the story has a good ending. I filled out another form with the details of when I had sent the application (and the new picture) along with my travel destination and dates. Three days later a passport arrived at my doorstep. Family vacation saved; lesson learned: follow my own advice.
Related: Cautionary tale from the same vacation: buy travel insurance
Lets begin with US Passport basics. If you’re planning to leave the country, you probably need a passport and if you don’t need a passport, it’s still a good idea to have one as it makes traveling out of the country much easier. There are no age limits on having a US Passport, so infants and adults alike need a valid passport to travel out of the country. Getting or renewing a passport for a minor requires some extra steps involving proof of consent from parents or guardians and note, for the purposed of passport renewal, passports for children under 16 are valid for five years.
When is a passport not required? If you’re on a cruise that begins and ends in the United States, it’s technically acceptable to travel with a raised seal birth certificate and photo ID (just the birth certificate for minors) no passport is required, even if the cruise stops at ports in other countries. Having a passport, however, makes getting on and off the ship in various ports and clearing customs much easier. Flying domestic (within the United States) requires ID for adults but not for minors traveling with adults.
If the destination you’re traveling to requires a passport, and everyone traveling has one, make sure you look at them carefully to check the expiration date, remembering that time flies (they may have expired even though it seems like just two years ago that you had them renewed) and children’s passports expire after only five years. Also note that many countries have “expiration requirements” that are different from the date of expiration printed on your passport so if the passport expires within six months after your planned travel dates, renew it prior to travel.
Having checked the expiration date and realizing it’s time to renew your passport, visit the Passport section of the Department of State and read the guidelines and instructions, download the proper forms, and confirm there is enough time before your travel dates to get your new passport back in time.
For passport renewal you’ll need a new passport picture which has its own very specific set of rules including removing any glasses among others. Many CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreen’s as well as public libraries and post offices offer this service and will make sure the technical specifications (correct size, background, exposure) are met. You’ll receive a physical copy of the picture which you’ll need to submit with the completed forms.
Once your forms are filled in and you have an acceptable picture for your passport, it’s time to send in the application, including your last expired (or nearly expired) passport, and any supporting documents required, especially for minors. The Department of State website lists all the fees and options including the option to expedite. Always do everything possible expedite your passport renewal including priority shipping both ways, even if it seems unnecessary.
I advise clients to have a passport expert look over all the documents looking for errors and potential issues that may delay the application process. Many libraries and some post office locations offer this service for a small fee. Take advantage of this service to avoid additional stress and frustration.
It’s possible to track the status of your application online but be warned, it is not very detailed or helpful. If you’re getting close to your travel dates and haven’t received your new passport, there are some last-minute options. If you’re planning to travel within a week or two, local Congressman can be helpful in getting passport applications processed. If you’re really down to the wire and traveling within three days, it may be possible to get an appointment at an in-person passport office, but you should not rely on this as there are only a few appointments per day and these offices are regional, meaning there are a lot of people trying to make appointments.
If you’re planning to travel, check the expiration date of your passport as soon as possible so you can get the passport renewal process started right away and avoid unnecessary stress leading up to your vacation.
About the Author
Joel is a co-owner of JJ Travel Associates (a Dream Vacations franchise), blogger-in-chief at JoelKnowsTravel.com, lover of all things travel (especially UNESCO World Heritage Sites), wannabe comedian, and the person you should call if you're thinking of planning a vacation.