How Passports Work

The new U.S. e-passport

Photo courtesy of the U.S. State Department

Introduction to How Passports Work

­If you've ever traveled outside the United States, one of the most important tasks you had to complete before your trip was applying for a passport. A copy of your original birth certificate used to suffice for short trips to Mexico or the Caribbean, say on a cruise. But, generally speaking, if you want to see the world, you have to have a passport -- the only universally accepted form of identification.

In this article, you'll find out when and why you need a passport and how to apply for one.

What Exactly is a Passport and How Long Have They Been Around?

Passports have been around in some form for hundreds of years. Governments learned long ago that an official document or certification -- one that identified a traveler as a citizen or national with a right to protection while abroad and a right to return to the country of his citizenship -- is a necessity. Passports, letters of transit and similar documents were used for centuries to allow individuals to travel safely in foreign lands, but the adoption of the passport by all nations was a development of the 19th and 20th centuries. According to State Department historians, except for brief periods during wartime, passports were not generally required for travel abroad and few obstacles were presented by foreign states' passport requirements until after 1914. An executive order on Dec. 15, 1915, required every person entering or leaving the United States to have a valid passport.

­In the United States, passports are issued upon application to U.S. citizens by the State Department and its 14 passport agencies in major cities (including Boston, Miami, Los Angeles and Houston), by the clerks of federal and certain state courts, certain designated post offices and by U.S. consular authorities abroad. The passport is required for both departure from and re-entry to the United States. It is valid for 10 years for adults and five years for people under 18 (their appearances generally change more often and more significantly, so more photo updates are needed). A U.S. passport cannot simply be renewed but must be completely replaced when it expires.

How Passports Work

The photo page of the e-passport

Photo courtesy of the U.S. State Department

U.S. passports are periodically upgraded to incorporate new technologies designed to thwart counterfeiters and forgers. To deter fraud, passport production uses advanced printing technology, special inks and security thread in the paper. The most recent innovation is the RFID (radio frequency identification) passport, or e-passport, which was introduced in August 2006 and has a computer chip embedded in the back cover. The chip contains your biographical information and a digital copy of your photograph, which is used with facial recognition technology for identification purposes. The data c­an be read only by password-enabled chip-readers at a very close distance (around four inches), and the reinforced back cover ensures that the chip cannot be accessed if the passport is closed.

How Passports Work

Xavier Moore of Columbus, Ohio, shows off his new e-passport.

Jerry Lai/Associated Press

Applying for a Passport

You can find passport applications at any regional passport agency or at designated post offices or clerk of court offices. (Check out the State Department's page on passport agencies or check your local telephone directory-look for Passport Services under the Department of State listing in the federal government blue pages of the directory.) You can download and print your own passport applications, but you still have to go in person to apply for your first passport.

You should apply for your passport several months in advance of your planned departure, making sure you fill in the dates of your upcoming trip in the appropriate place on the application. If you'll need visas from foreign embassies (find out by checking foreign entry requirements for the country you'll visit), allow more time. It's very important to check those requirements. Imagine how disappointed you'd be if you were turned back on the day of your departure because your passport expires in three months and the country you're visiting requires it to be valid at least six months AFTER you return home! Also check on immunization requirements -- you may need to be inoculated before you can enter a country.

If you apply at a passport acceptance facility, like the post office, your application will be sent that day to Passport Services for processing, and you will receive your passport by first-class mail within six weeks. If you apply at a passport agency, you will receive your passport within five weeks (25 business days) by first-class mail. Your passport will be sent to the mailing address you provide on your application.

Something to think about: Lines are longest at passport agencies from January to July, resulting in longer waiting times for applicants. You might want to avoid the crowds by applying through a nearby clerk of court or post office that accepts passport applications. (There are more than 8,000 of these located throughout the United States -- you can search for an acceptance agency near you.)

When you consider its importance and how long it lasts, a passport is a pretty good deal. For routine services (using Form DS-11), passports for adults 16 and older cost $97 ($67 for the passport and $30 for execution). Those age 15 and younger pay a total of $82. (None of these fees includes the cost of overnight mail!)

If you were born outside the United States and your citizenship has not yet been determined or if the passport agent considers your case "complex," getting a passport will cost more.

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI)

The WHTI, which went into effect on Jan. 23, 2007, has brought about quite a few changes in passport policy (and caused more than a little panic). For years, U.S. citizens returning by air from countries in North, South and Central America and the Caribbean could present a driver's license or birth certificate instead of a passport. The WHTI says that all air travelers must present passports when crossing back into the U.S. Land and sea travelers will have to do the same in the near future, maybe by summer 2008.

In response, the State Department has proposed the development of a cheaper, limited-use passport card for land and sea travel to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean. The wallet-size passport card would use RFID technology and contain biographical information and photographic data, but at about half the price.

Passport Backlog

Passport processing times have gotten much longer since the WHTI went into effect in January 2007. The system was immediately flooded with applications, which created a huge backlog and a 10- to 15-week wait for routine service (two to six weeks for expedited service). On June 8, in an attempt to alleviate the situation, Congress passed a provision that permitted citizens to present official proof of a pending passport application when returning by air to the U.S. from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean before September 30. But get ready for another run on passports when the land and sea portion of the initiative takes effect, which could be as early as summer 2008. Ten times more people cross the borders by land and sea than by air.

Does everybody have to apply in person?

The State Department's Passport Agency says you must apply in person for a U.S. passport if you meet any of the following descriptions:

  • You are applying for a U.S. passport for the first time.
  • Your previous passport was lost or stolen.
  • Your previous passport has expired and was issued more than 15 years ago.
  • Your previous passport has expired and was issued when you were under 16.
  • Your name has changed since your passport was issued and you do not have a legal document formally changing your name.

Minor children must appear in person.

Applying for a passport is not really difficult -- but you must follow very specific rules. Follow these steps and you'll have all your bases covered:

1) Complete application Form DS-11 -- but DO NOT sign the form until you are instructed to do so by the passport agent. (As we mentioned, application forms can be obtained from any passport agency or acceptance facility, or by downloading the form from the State Department's Web site. In addition, some travel agents keep application forms on hand for their clients.)

2) Present proof of U.S. citizenship (NOT your voter's registration card, military discharge card or Social Security card, but one of the following):

  • Previous U.S. passport
  • Certified birth certificate issued by the city, county or state. (The way you'll know you have a certified birth certificate is that it has a registrar's raised, embossed, pressed or multicolored seal and the date the certificate was filed with the registrar's office.)
  • Consular report of birth abroad
  • Naturalization certificate
  • Certificate of citizenship

If you don't have (or can't find) any of these documents, there's still hope. Read on for more identification options.

How Passports Work

Major backups for the Passport Service.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Proving Your Identity

If you don't have any of the major forms of identification, you'll have to dig deeper to come up with documents the passport agent will accept. You will need a letter of no record. This document is issued by the state, confirming the name, date of birth, years searched for a record and that there is no birth certificate on file for the applicant. In addition, you'll want to take along as many of the following documents as you can.

Try to find other documentation of birth in the United States, such as a baptismal certificate, hospital birth certificate (this is not the same as the certified birth certificate issued by the state), census record, certificate of circumcision, early school record, family Bible record or a doctor's record of postnatal care. (This documentation must be a public record showing the date and place of birth and must have been created within the first five years of life. An affidavit or Form DS-10A from an older blood relative who has personal knowledge of your birth can be used but must be notarized or contain the seal and signature of the passport acceptance agent.)

Bring along any proof of identity, such as previous U.S. passport, certificate of citizenship or naturalization, current valid driver's license, government (city, state or federal) ID, military ID (for military and dependents), work ID (from current employer), student ID (must be currently enrolled), Merchant Marine card (also known as a "seamen's" or "Z" card), pilot or flight attendant ID.

Still no luck? Then try to get someone to vouch for you. This person must have known you for at least two years, must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and have valid ID. That person will need to fill out Form DS-71 in front of the passport agent. The passport applicant must have some form of signature ID, such as a Social Security card, credit card, bank card or library card.

One more thing: Even though your Social Security card is not required by the passport application, it does ask for your Social Security number. (According to Passport Services, the Internal Revenue Service receives notification of those who decline to produce a Social Security card or number. They can be fined up to $500 for failure to provide this information, so remember to take your card along.)­


How Passports Work

The U.S. government developed frequent-traveler cards to cut down on the wait at border crossings like this one in Tijuana, Mexico.

Kevin Connors/morgueFile

Last-minute Travel

If you need a passport in a hurry -- for a business trip or a vacation -- you can get expedited passport processing from the State Department or any of its regional passport agencies. (Remember, you still have to apply in person!) It will cost extra. There is a $60 fee per passport for this service in addition to your passport fee. For this fee, you get your passport issued, amended (say, if your name changes) and additional visa pages added as needed.

The State Department also strongly recommends that, if you use its expedited service, you also pay for two-way overnight mail for each application (you can pay this when you go to turn in your application, photos and fees). Passport applications sent together or at the same time do not necessarily remain together and will be mailed separately. So don't worry if a family member gets his passport back first. (Check details and payment methods of expedited passport service on the State Department's Web site.)

In ideal conditions, the passport agency processes expedited passports within three working days from receipt of the application. If you paid for overnight mail, you should receive your passport in about two weeks (if using the DS-11 and DS-82 passport application forms). You can also expedite passport renewal-and you can do it by mail.

If you need a passport for a trip that's starting in less than 14 days, you'll need to make an appointment at a regional passport agency (877-4USA-PPT) and bring along proof of travel. You can also use a private rush service, which can procure passports in 24 hours.

How Passports Work

Guards at U.S.-Mexico border crossings identify SENTRI cardholders using facial-recognition technology.

Dennis Poroy/Associated Press

Passport Photos

Passport photographs must be 2 inches by 2 inches in size, identical and taken within the past six months. The image size from the bottom of the chin to the top of the head should be between 1 inch and 1 3/8 inches. They may be in color or black-and-white, full face or front view, with a plain white or off-white background. (Don't worry -- professional passport photographers know these rules!) Photographs should be taken in normal street attire, without a hat or headgear that covers the hair or hairline. Uniforms should not be worn in photographs with the exception of religious attire that is worn daily. If prescription glasses, hearing aids, wigs or other such articles are normally worn, they should be worn when the picture is taken. Dark glasses or nonprescription glasses with tinted lenses are not allowed unless they are required for medical reasons. A medical certificate may be required to support the wearing of these glasses in photographs. Vending machine photos are not generally acceptable -- to be on the safe side, you'd better get a professional to take your photo and print it. (Kinko's, Eckerd's and other quick-photo places will make your photos for you while you wait. It usually costs about $15 for one shot, two prints.)

Can I Have My Old Passport Back?

Yes! Most people view their passports as important memorabilia and are eager to get them back. That's why your previous passport, marked "canceled," will be returned to you with your new one.

Passport Renewal

Passport renewal will cost $75 if you can use Form DS-82 to do it by mail. You can use this form if either of these applies:

  • You possess and can submit your most recent passport.
  • Your previous passport was issued on or after your 16th birthday and within the past 15 years.

To apply for passport renewal by mail, complete Form DS-82, sign it and date it. Your packet should also include your current (or most recent) passport, two identical passport photos and the $75 fee (plus $60 if you want expedited service). If your name has changed since your last passport was issued, you'll need to submit a certified copy (NOT a photocopy) of the court order, adoption decree, marriage certificate or divorce decree. Send it all to the National Passport Center. (Note: If your passport has been damaged or altered in any way, you must apply in person and bring IDs and proofs of citizenship. You can also render your passport invalid if you mutilate it and can even be prosecuted for the act.)

If you're a U.S. citizen living abroad, you should renew your passport at the nearest U.S. Embassy or U.S. Consulate. Passports renewed by mail can only be forwarded to U.S. addresses.

Lost or Stolen Passport

Losing your passport -- especially if you're in a foreign country -- can be scary. It's the most important item you carry with you, so it's best to keep it someplace secure (like in a money pouch you wear under your clothes). Another safety measure you can take is to make two photocopies of the photo ID page of your passport. Leave one at home with family or friends and keep the other in a different place from your passport, perhaps buried in the bottom of checked luggage. This could make all the difference in getting you on your flight home in the event that your passport is lost or stolen. It also makes getting it replaced much easier.

You'll want to report the loss of your passport as soon as possible. You can actually report a lost or stolen passport at the same time you apply for the new one. At that time, you will submit a DS-64 "Statement Regarding Lost or Stolen Passport" form. (Again, you can download this form.) You'll also need to fill out a Form DS-11 passport application and submit it in person, along with appropriate documentation and fees, to your nearest passport acceptance facility. (Don't worry -- you are not required to know your passport number or issuance date to apply for a new passport. However, it's not a bad idea to memorize them, since most countries require that info on forms you'll be asked to complete quickly on an airplane or in customs.)

How Passports Work

A visa page on the new e-passport

Photo courtesy of the U.S. State Department

Inside a Passport

There are 24 pages and two page types in a U.S. passport:

  • Fifteen pages that can be stamped with entry and departure dates and information. In addition, these pages are also used for visas.
  • Three pages for amendments and endorsements (This is where, for example, a name-change amendment, filed on Form DSP-19, might be documented.)

The other pages in your passport include the photo page (sorry, these don't usually look much better than driver's license photos) that bears your nine-digit passport number, effective dates and an official government stamp. There are also pages listing passport laws, what to do if your passport is lost or stolen, an emergency contact page and a statement from the U.S. Secretary of State requesting that the bearer be allowed to "pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need, to give all lawful aid and protection." This protective statement outlines an important function of the passport -- it lets you and anyone else who reads it know that you, as a U.S. citizen, have rights and are under the protection of the U.S. government. (This doesn't mean you don't have to obey foreign laws! But if you have problems on a trip, you can call the U.S. Embassy office in that country for assistance.)


Most countries also require travelers entering their borders to obtain a visa issued according to that country's laws. These documents are often attached to a passport page by the awarding embassy (you have to send your passport along with your visa request) and can take up a whole page. Once these pages are filled, if your passport is still valid, you must apply to Passport Services for additional pages.

Tips for Travelers

Now that your passport is winging its way to your mailbox, you can proceed with other travel plans. The Bureau of Consular Affairs offers the following tips for travelers:

  • Be sure you have a signed, valid passport and, if required, the appropriate visas. (Also, before you go, fill in the emergency information page of your passport!)
  • Read the consular information sheets (and public announcements or travel warnings) for the countries you plan to visit.
  • Read up on local laws and customs of the countries you'll be visiting. Remember, the U.S. Constitution does not follow you! While in a foreign country, you are subject to its laws.
  • Make two copies of your passport identification page. Leave one copy at home with family and carry the other with you, hiding it apart from your passport.
  • Leave a copy of your itinerary with family or friends at home so that you can be contacted in case of an emergency.
  • Do not leave your luggage unattended in public areas. Do not accept packages from strangers. (These are questions you'll be asked whenever you check in for your flight.)
  • If you plan to stay abroad for more than two weeks, you should call or register in person with the U.S. embassy in the country you are visiting. This will improve the lines of communication in the event someone contacts the embassy looking for you.
  • To avoid being a target of crime, try not to wear conspicuous clothing and expensive jewelry or carry excessive amounts of money or credit cards.
  • In order to avoid violating local laws, deal only with authorized agents when you exchange money or purchase art or antiques.
  • If you get into trouble, contact the nearest U.S. embassy.
What If I Still Have Questions?

­The good news is that you can contact the National Passport Information Center (NPIC) with questions about passports and visas. The NPIC can be reached by dialing the toll-free number 1-877-4USA-PPT (1-877-487-2778). Customer service representatives are available to help with questions Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (ET) with automated assistance available 24/7. You can also receive a status report on your application by calling the toll-free number. See the National Passport Information Center to learn more.

For more information on ­passports and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

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  • Alberts, Sheldon. "Canadians to get reprieve on U.S. passport rules." National Post. June 20, 2007.
  • Conlin, Jennifer. "U.S. Plans Alternative to Passport for Region." New York Times. July 15, 2007.
  • Higgins, Michelle. "The Clock is Ticking for Winter Travelers." New York Times. January 14, 2007.
  • Palanik, Jacqueline. "Working Nights and Weekends to Process Passports." New York Times. July 4, 2007.
  • Staba, David. "New Passport Rules Bring Worry Over Tourism at Niagara Falls." New York Times. June 11, 2007.
  • Stables, Eleanor. "Land, Sea Passport Requirements Delayed Until At Least Summer '08." Congressional Quarterly. June 20, 2007.