If you are an American citizen planning to travel outside the United States by air, you will need a US passport in order to return home. If you are traveling on land to Canada, Mexico or points south, you will also need a passport to return to the US. US citizens must present a valid passport to enter most other countries, although some will accept a government-issued photo ID and a certified copy of your birth certificate for entry.
Even if you are able to travel with your photo ID and certified birth certificate copy, having a passport in hand makes international travel more convenient because customs agents around the world are used to reviewing and stamping passports. Passports come with a semi-rigid cover that protects the pages, and they are conveniently sized.
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 than the traditional passport book and is easier to carry, but it 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 six to eight weeks to process your passport application. You can renew passports by mail, but you will need to apply in person to obtain your first passport. If you are changing or have changed your sex marker, you will need to apply in person, and the passport you receive may be of limited validity if you are in transition.
Where do I Apply for My US Passport?
You can apply for your US passport at many post offices, selected regional federal buildings and some circuit court offices. The easiest way to find your closest passport application acceptance facility is to go to the State Department’s passport acceptance facility search page and search by ZIP code. The search form also allows you to select accessible sites and find nearby locations where you can have passport photographs taken.
You can download passport application forms, complete and print an online form and find out which documents you will need to bring at the State Department’s website. The documents you must provide vary depending on whether you are applying in person for your first passport or a change of sex marker passport or you are renewing a passport by mail. 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 will also need a government-issued photo ID, such as a driver’s license. Applicants who are changing or have changed their sex marker must also submit a medical certification to that effect.
Once you have 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. Some passport acceptance facilities accept walk-in applicants; typically, post offices require appointments, while courthouses may accept walk-ins. 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. Without a Social Security number, your passport application may not be processed.
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, so when you run out of pages, you will have to get a new passport.
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 photography and printing requirements carefully.
What if I’m Leaving Soon?
If you are 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 are 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 printed proof of your imminent departure. Ask what to bring when you make your appointment.
In a life-or-death situation, you can apply for a passport in person at your nearest passport agency and receive it right away. You must document your situation when you apply. Call (877) 487-2778 to make an appointment.