How Passports Work

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.
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.