Getting a new or renewed passport in the next several months will take longer than usual, as the U.S. State Department's Passport Services expects it will soon get a glut of applications.
That's because of a change in laws a decade ago requiring passports to travel in the Western Hemisphere, according to Florence Fultz, managing director for Passport Services.
"So we had a huge surge, 18.6 million more than we had ever had before," she said. "Passports are good for 10 years, so now all these people are coming back to renew."
Fultz said her office has been preparing for the influx of applications - increasing the number of facilities that can accept passports, opening new Passport Agencies, getting an additional print-setter to print books, increasing staff by a third, and trying to hire several hundred more people.
But she said there will still be longer wait times, so she offers these tips to avoid passport problems:
- Apply early
Last year, routine processing for applications took about four weeks. Now, Fultz said it could take as long as six weeks.
People can renew their passports simply by mail, if their passport was issued in the last 15 years and if they were over the age of 16 at the time it was issued. All forms can be found online; they must be submitted with the current passport, a good photo and a check for processing fees.
Everyone else, including those applying for the first time, must apply in person. While Missouri has no Passport Agency offices, it does have more than 150 facilities like post offices, libraries and clerks of court that are part of the State Department's "acceptance network" that can take passport applications. Across the river in Illinois are another couple dozen. Find the closest facility near you using this handy tool.
- Be prepared to fork over more fees if you procrastinate
Getting a passport in just two to three weeks will cost an extra $60. Expedited processing can be applied for by mail or in person at the acceptance network facilities.
If someone is really put things off for a trip fewer than two weeks away and needs a passport or visa, Fultz said the best option is to go to a Passport Agency office. However, the closest ones to St. Louis are in Chicago or Hot Springs, Ark.
"But we really hope people will avoid going in to our agencies because they are very busy," Fultz said. "You can be there for the better part of a day."
- Check the validity
Some countries, particularly in Europe, require passports to be valid for a minimum time period in order for a person to be allowed in the country. For example, Mexico requires a passport to be valid for at least six months before it will be accepted.
"One of our emergency situations is people who have validity for four or five months not being able to go on a flight," Fultz said.
- Check the kids' passports
Every person, no matter how young, needs a passport to travel out of the country, Fultz said. But children's passports are only good for five years.
"Mom and dad check their passports and think they are good to go, and then they get to the airport and, lo and behold, the child's passport is expired," she said.
Being a Missouri native, Fultz said she also wants to remind St. Louis' growing immigrant population that it is a good idea to have a passport ready in case people need to return to family overseas in an emergency. Likewise, she said parents of students studying abroad might consider doing the same.
- A passport works, but isn't needed for domestic air travel
Missouri has until January 2018 to update its state-issued driver's licenses and identification cards to meet new federal standards. If it misses that deadline, its residents then will have to use their passports or other means to fly domestically.
But Fultz said right now, people can still use those driver's licenses and IDs to travel by air in the U.S., so she said people do not need to apply for passports solely for that reason.
You can get more information by calling the National Passport Information Center at 877-487-2778.
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