Traveling to another country can be a wonderful experience. In most cases, you’ll need a to get a passport either to enter your destination country or to return home.
If you’re an American citizen planning to travel outside the United States by air, you will need a US passport in order to return home. As of June 1, 2009, if you are taking a cruise that does not include air travel, or if you are traveling on land, you will need a passport to return to the US.
It’s a good idea to get a passport in any case, because most countries require either a passport or, at the very least, a government-issued photo ID and a certified copy of your birth certificate for entry.
You may wish to apply for a passport card instead of the traditional passport book if you only travel to Bermuda, the Caribbean, Canada and Mexico by sea or land. The passport card costs less, but is not valid for air travel or travel to any other international destinations.
When Should I Apply?
Apply for your passport early. The State Department estimates that it will take four to six weeks to process your passport application. You can renew passports by mail, but you will need to apply in person for your first passport.
Where do I Apply for My US Passport?
You can apply for your US passport at many post offices, selected regional federal buildings and at some circuit court offices. The easiest way to find your closest passport application acceptance facility is to go to the State Department’s website and search by ZIP code.
The search form allows you to select handicap access sites and find nearby locations where you can have passport photographs taken.
Typically, American citizens must present a certified birth certificate copy or a valid US passport as proof of citizenship. Requirements vary for citizens without birth certificates and naturalized citizens. You’ll also need a government-issued photo ID, such as a driver’s license.
Once you’ve selected your application acceptance facility and organized your paperwork, call to schedule a passport application appointment. Most acceptance facilities have limited application hours; you may find that appointments are booked a week or two ahead. You will need to bring your passport photos and proof of citizenship to this appointment.
You must provide your Social Security number on your passport application or incur a $500 fine, imposed by the IRS.
If you plan to travel frequently, request a 52-page passport book. As of January 1, 2016, the State Department will no longer add extra pages to passports.
What About Passport Photos?
AAA offices take passport photos for members and non-members. A few passport offices offer photography services. You can also have photos taken at “big box” stores that have photography studios, and even at many pharmacies. If you have a digital camera and photo printer, you can also take your passport photos at home.
Be sure to follow the State Department's requirements.
What if I’m Leaving Soon?
If you’re departing in less than six weeks, you can pay an extra fee to expedite your application. Expect to receive your passport in two to three weeks. If you’re in a real hurry – departing in two weeks or less – and you have already purchased tickets, you can make an appointment at one of the 13 regional processing centers, usually located in federal buildings, and apply for your passport in person. You will need to bring proof of your imminent departure; ask what to bring when you make your appointment.