What is a Passport?

Everything You Need to Know About Passports and How They Work

american passport and map
••• An American Passport. Yenwen/E+/Getty Images

A passport is an easily recognized travel document that identifies you and authorizes you to travel. If you're from the United States, your passport will be a small navy blue booklet, which contains your photo, name, date of birth, residence in the United States, and plenty of blank pages awaiting stamps. Your passport will usually be valid for 10 years. 

You'll generally need to apply for a passport in order to leave and enter the United States from any other countries.

Whenever you arrive in a new country, you'll have to hand your passport over to immigration, who will stamp one of your pages with their country's official seal. It's as simple as that.

So, if you want to take a trip abroad, you'll need to apply for a passport, and using it overseas is as simple as handing it to immigration whenever you arrive in a new country. For more information on the application process and where you'll have to use your passport, keep on reading. 

How to Apply for a Passport

Don't have a passport yet? If you're a U.S. citizen don't panic, as applying for your passport is much easier than you think. That's if your U.S. citizenship is fairly straightforward, of course. 

What do I mean by straightforward? Well, if you can produce a U.S. birth certificate, record of your birth abroad, naturalization certificate, or certificate of citizenship, you're good to go. You'll also need to prove your identity, which can be done with a standard government-issued ID, such as a driving license.


For the full steps and information on applying for your passport, see the following post: How to Get Your First U.S. Passport

What if I Don't Have Any of the Above? 

It's a little tricker to apply for a passport, but by no means impossible. If you don't have a birth certificate for whatever reason, you'll have to spend some time gathering as much evidence of your identity as possible.

For a full list of acceptable forms of identification, how to apply for a delayed birth certificate at your current age, and how to use a Letter of No Record to help you complete your application, take a look at our guide to getting a passport without a birth certificate

How to Rush a Passport Application

Need a passport in a hurry? You absolutely can get one quickly, and you absolutely do not have to pay someone else to do it for you (there are a lot of scammy services that take your money to do exactly what you can do yourself). This writer has done it (I got a passport the same day I applied, and I did it myself) and it was a piece of cake. Learn how you can do the same in my detailed guide to rushing your passport application.

How to Check Your Passport Status

The government provides a simple way to check on your passport application status online, which is especially useful if you've got a trip fast-approaching. Learn how to do it in the following article: Check the Status of Your Passport Application

Where Do You Need a Passport?

The answer is a bit more complicated than it seems -- you do not need a passport to drive to Mexico or Canada, for example, provided you have a PASS card or (if you live in the right state) an enhanced driver's license, or a few other forms of acceptable ID.

Learn more about where you can visit in the following articles below:

Regardless of the above, though, I highly recommend applying for a passport. Once you do, the entire world opens up to you and vacations become a lot more diverse. 


This article has been edited and updated by Lauren Juliff