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.