How Passports Work

Get those passports ready, international travelers of mystery!
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One hot day in the mid-1800s, Josef Victor von Scheffel was walking along the east bank of the Rhine when the idea struck him to do a little skinny-dipping. Unfortunately for the young man, who would later become a German writer of some fame, the current flowed far faster than he expected. It took all his strength to fight through the water and, confused, he came out on the far bank in France. His options limited, he showed up, naked and wet, at a nearby inn — where a district military policeman promptly asked him for his papers [source: Fadiman].

Losing a passport can leave anyone feeling a bit naked. It identifies you, offers basic protections and helps you gain entry into new countries. More than that, not having one might prevent, or at least greatly delay, your return home. Exceptions exist — traveling by land to Mexico or Canada under certain circumstances, visiting certain U.S. territories or sailing a closed-loop cruise in the Western Hemisphere, to name a few examples — but such rules could change at any time [source: USPSG]. Usually, if you want to see the world, you need a passport.


Never fear, we'll take you through the process for getting one — in the U.S., at least. We don't have room to do a country-by-country survey, but many of the same rules should apply.

At its root, a passport identifies a traveler as a citizen or national under the protection of his or her home government. The idea dates back to the fifth century B.C.E. when, according to the Bible, Persian king Artaxerxes gave letters to Nehemiah asking governors to grant him safe passage through their lands [source: Benedictus]. But Europe, for example, did not widely adopt such sureties until the 19th century, and passport papers and booklets remained unstandardized until the 20th.

Across the pond, federal law protecting American passport bearers existed as early as 1790 but was not widely applied — or respected by foreign powers — until the 19th century. As in Europe, the document saw standardization in response to the outbreak of World War I [source: Robertson]. Over the same period, countries began requiring travelers to apply for travel visas before showing up on their proverbial doorsteps [sources: Benedictus, Canadian Government].

Today, the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs manages U.S. passports and visas. You can apply via mail, visit one of 27 passport agencies in major U.S. cities, or stop by one of the many passport acceptance facilities nationwide, which can include clerks of courts and other municipal and state offices. Which option applies to you depends on your time crunch and your status as a first-timer versus a veteran rover in need of a renewal. A passport is valid for 10 years for adults and five years for minors ages 15 and under [sources: U.S. State Department, Agencies; U.S. State Department, Apply].


Applying for a Passport or Renewal

Before you get started planning that 'round-the-globe adventure, make sure you have your passport in hand -- or that you've at least applied for one.
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So you want to get away from it all and maybe do a little eating, praying and loving? Well, unless you have a passport already (make sure it hasn't expired!), you'd better start the process now — it can take some time. The U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs estimates four to five weeks as the routine turnaround time and two to three weeks for expedited service, but estimates by other sources vary widely and can be affected by time of year or policy changes [source: U.S. State Department].

How you go about it depends on your time horizon, your status as a newbie or renew-bie, and where you currently hang your hat. Passport agencies offer the best one-stop shopping — you can apply for any service there, from renewals to passport cards and faster turnarounds — but they're few and far between. Also, you'll need an appointment and proof of travel. Hint: Passport agency lines grow longest from January to July [source: Williams].


If you can wait a bit longer, then you can stop by one of the many local passport acceptance facilities, fill out an online application, or print your forms at home and mail them. You can obtain renewals, changes, corrections, replacements and extra pages via post, but first-timers and children 17 and under must apply in person at a passport acceptance facility [sources: U.S. State Department, Agencies; U.S. State Department, Apply].

Applying from outside the U.S. can involve different rules and requirements. It involves the same forms, but you should contact your local embassy or consulate for submission instructions. You'll also likely need to provide supporting documentation and pay fees in U.S. or local currency [source: U.S. State Department]. We go into a bit more detail on these steps below.

Travel prep and paperwork don't end with the passport, however. When a stern foreign official demands your papers, you'll likely need a travel visa as well (find out by checking foreign entry requirements for the country you'll visit). Remember, passports are issued by your government, but visas are issued by theirs. While you're at it, why not check travel advisories, alerts and warnings so that you're up-to-date on relevant security concerns, vaccinations and inoculations? The latter can require a long lead time (several months or even a year), so read up on your destination as early as possible.

Pro tip: Some countries and inbound airlines require that a visitor's passport have at least six months of validity left — that's six months from your return date, not your departure. Don't find this out the hard way. Similarly, travelers should have at least two to four blank visa stamp pages and should be aware of the currency rules that kick in when entering and leaving each country [source: U.S. State Department].

Passport fees vary based on the applicant's age and the services involved. First-timers must pay an extra execution fee to cover checking credentials, giving the oath and other administrative costs.


What You'll Need

You'll need to have a photo taken for your fancy, new passport -- smile!
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Passport policies and processes change, so we strongly suggest checking the latest on the Bureau of Consular Affairs' U.S. Passports and International Travel website — the source of all the info below.

For passport first-timers, your tour should start with a visit to your nearest passport agency or acceptance facility. The same holds true for minors age 15 and under (or if you received your previous passport while that age); if your last passport was lost, stolen or damaged; or if you ordered your old passport more than 15 years ago. A name change that you cannot legally document will also require some quality time at one of these services.


Of course, you'll want to gather a few necessities before you go: ID (along with a front-and-back photocopy that you can leave with the agency); proof of citizenship (originals, not copies); a passport photo (color headshot, 2 x 2 inches [51 x 51 mm]); and some way to pay the fees (options vary). You can fill out the passport application, Form DS-11, in person, or download and print it ahead of time, but you must not sign it until told to do so by an acceptance agent.

ID options comprise a valid driver's license, government ID or military ID. Proof of citizenship includes a certified birth certificate or Consular Report of Birth Abroad. A valid passport, or a naturalization or citizenship certificate, counts for both.

If you don't have any of the IDs listed, gather as much proof as possible and find a citizen who has known you for at least two years and will swear to your identity. Applicants who cannot provide current primary evidence of citizenship can, for a fee of $150, ask the bureau to perform a search for their previous U.S. passport or Consular Report of Birth Abroad (if applicable).

Some additional or special rules apply to minors 17 and under; to diplomatic, official and regular no-fee passports; to people applying from outside the U.S.; and to people going through gender transition. Legal problems, such as failure to pay child support, can also impede your ability to obtain a passport.

If these don't apply to you, cheers! You can most likely renew by mail. As an added bonus, you can apply for a passport card by mail, too, even if you have not had one before. Simply fill out your renewal form, Form DS-82: Application for a U.S. Passport by Mail, and include it along with your old U.S. passport book and/or card, your fee and your passport photo. If you've changed your name, include a certified copy of your marriage certificate or court order.


Additional Options, Fees and Recommendations

Passengers wait in line at Miami International Airport to use a new mobile app for expedited passport and customs screening. This technology is among many security advancements. It allows U.S. and some Canadian citizens to enter using their smartphones.
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For the movers and shakers among us, those never content with buying off the rack, the Bureau of Consular Affairs offers a number of optional extras — but they don't come free.

As of November 2015, U.S. passports for adults cost $110, plus an added $30 for a passport card; first-timers pay an extra $25 execution fee. For minors, those costs drop to $80 for a passport book and $15 for a card (execution fees stay the same).


Travelers who need a passport in a hurry have a few options. You can request expedited service for an additional $60 fee, which could shave valuable weeks off processing time. To really kick things into high gear, you can spend an extra $14.85 to request overnight delivery. In cases of a life-or-death emergency, contact the National Passport Information Center (NPIC). Beware companies that offer passport rushing or courier services — they don't exert any special pull with Uncle Sam and cannot get your passport any faster (see this list of tips for more useful info).

Frequent travelers might burn through their 17 pages of stamp space before their passports expire. If you're one of them, you can submit your current passport and add pages, in groups of 24, at $82 a throw. For a cheaper option (as in free), simply ask for a larger passport book when renewing [sources: U.S. State Department, Fees; U.S. State Department, Renew].

The bureaus will correct errors at no charge, but, depending on circumstances, name change costs vary from free to the cost of a new passport.

When you conduct business with the National Passport Processing Center via mail, they recommend that you use a security envelope, preferably one large enough to hold your materials without folding your paperwork. And of course, because these documents are personal, sensitive and often difficult to replace, it's also a good idea to use a trackable delivery method, such as USPS Priority Mail with either delivery confirmation or signature confirmation, or, in the case of overnight delivery, USPS Express Mail [source: U.S. State Department].

A few key safeguards can reduce the chances that you'll lose your passport — and lessen the blow if you do. First, keep the document in a secure place, like a hidden money pouch. Second, as insurance, make two photocopies of your photo ID page. Leave one at home with family or friends and keep the other buried in your checked luggage. Finally, report lost or stolen passports ASAP by submitting a form DS-64 online or by calling 1-877-487-2778 (TTY 1-888-874-7793) toll free. You will then need to contact your U.S. embassy or consulate, so keep their contact info handy — on your phone and/or on cards in your wallet, luggage or money pouch.

If you still have questions (and you probably should), visit the NPIC website, call them at 1-877-4USA-PPT (1-877-487-2778) or email Customer service staff answer questions Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET (except for federal holidays) and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET. Automated assistance is open 24/7. Americans currently abroad should reach out to their nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Benedictus, Leo. "A Brief History of the Passport." The Guardian. Nov. 17, 2006. (Nov. 11, 2015)
  • Broache, Anne. "RFID passports arrive for Americans." CNET. Aug. 15, 2006. (Nov. 11, 2015)
  • Campbell-Dollaghan, Kelsey. "Your Passport's Complex Security Tech, Explained by Forgery Pros." Gizmodo. Feb. 5, 2015. (Nov. 11, 2015)
  • Canadian government. "History of Passports." April 10, 2014. (Nov. 11, 2015)
  • Conlin, Jennifer. "U.S. Plans Alternative to Passport for Region." The New York Times. July 15, 2007. (Nov. 16, 2015)
  • Fadiman, Clifton (ed.). "Bartlett's Book of Anecdotes." Little, Brown and Company. 1985.
  • Higgins, Michelle. "The Clock is Ticking for Winter Travelers." The New York Times. Jan. 14, 2007. (Nov. 16, 2015)
  • Palank, Jacqueline. "Working Nights and Weekends to Process Passports." The New York Times. July 4, 2007. (Nov. 16, 2015)
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  • Staba, David. "New Passport Rules Bring Worry Over Tourism at Niagara Falls." The New York Times. June 11, 2007. (Nov. 16, 2015)
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