Richard and Stephanie Park waited too long to get their passports.
After booking airline tickets from Washington, D.C., to Montreal, they checked their travel documents. Richard’s passport had another year on it.
“But then I realized that my wife’s passport had expired,” says Park, a human resources manager from Washington, D.C.
With just two months before they were supposed to leave for Canada, the Parks didn’t have enough time to renew the expired passport by mail. So they joined thousands of other Americans scrambling to get passports during a time of record delays.
Why does it take so long to get a passport?
Normally, processing a passport application or renewal takes only a few weeks. But the pandemic, plus an unprecedented demand for passports, has extended those waiting times. In 2022, the government issued nearly 22 million passports, the most ever. The State Department is on track to break that record in this fiscal year. The government has also paused its pilot online renewal system to fine-tune it, which some observers say has created a bigger passport backlog. The State Department denies this.
It takes 10 to 13 weeks to process a passport application, according to the U.S. State Department. But travelers and passport experts say it can drag on for 15 to 18 weeks, once you take mailing times into account.
“Our staff is working thousands of hours of overtime,” Rachel Arndt, deputy assistant secretary for passport services, told me. “We’ve also increased the number of lines and people available at the National Passport Information Center and will continue to increase capacity and hours to handle the influx of calls we are receiving.”
But you can still get a passport for this summer. Turns out there are a lot of ways to get around the passport logjam, from using a courier service, to expediting your passport, to contacting your elected representative. I’ll also tell you how Park got his wife’s passport. But my favorite strategy is one almost no one has mentioned in the voluminous coverage of America’s passport crisis. I’ll get to that in a second.
Waiting for a passport? Use a passport expeditor service
Courier or expeditor services charge a fee of anywhere between $150 and $300 to handle your passport application. They submit your paperwork on your behalf, and you can then pick up your passport in a few days. The services have access to appointments set aside by the government to help serve disabled customers, those unable to leave work or children, according to David Alwadish, CEO of ItsEasy.Com Passport & Visa Services.
But there’s a second group of companies that pre-make appointments and then resell them to desperate travelers at a markup of between $800 and $1,000. Alwadish refers to them as “black market” courier services. And while these services also work, they prey on the most desperate travelers.
Courier or expeditor services usually don’t have any better access to the passport system than the average person, according to Harding Bush, senior manager for security operations at Global Rescue.
“But they do understand the process and will do the legwork of working with the regional or national passport agencies,” he adds.
Travel to a Passport Agency with availability to avoid a wait
You can get an expedited passport if you have travel booked within 14 calendar days by making an appointment to visit one of the 26 regional passport agencies. But many Passport Agencies are fully booked, and for first-time applicants, the State Department says it can’t guarantee an appointment will be available.
Several readers have complained that they can’t get appointments at the San Francisco Passport Agency, for example. And walk-up appointments are no longer available. But there’s availability at the passport agencies in San Juan and Honolulu, according to experts. Some travelers are planning a vacation at one of these destinations so they can get their passports while taking some time off.
Proximity to the beach is optional. Andrew Williams, a travel advisor at OvationNetwork, needed to renew his passport in Houston recently. He called the Passport Agency, but it had no available appointments.
“I opted to fly to Dallas, and was able to get my new passport on the same day,” he says.
Don’t want to wait for your passport? Contact your elected representative
Your Congressional representative can cut through the bureaucracy and go straight to the right person at the State Department. Some elected representatives even advertise this shortcut on their websites, offering to submit “urgent” inquiries on your behalf to the appropriate U.S. Passport Agency.
“Often representatives will have dedicated staffers to help their constituents with these kinds of issues,” says Hans Mast, manager of Golden Rule Travel, a travel agency that specializes in arranging travel for non-governmental organizations.
But, he adds, “Please don’t abuse this powerful tip, and only use it when the normal avenues have been exhausted.”
It’s too late. Congressional offices have been overrun lately, to the point that Virginia Sen. Mark Warner recently called on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to fix the delays.
Book a trip now
What if you need a passport but don’t have any imminent travel plans? Here’s a workaround.
“Book a refundable flight ticket for the near future and then send in your renewal application,” says Salila Sukumaran, founder of a travel agency that focuses on wellness travel. “There is a good chance you will get your passport before your departure date.”
I know what you’re thinking. Does the State Department check to make sure you actually left on the day of your scheduled departure? As far as I can tell, it doesn’t. So you could get a refund on your ticket and travel later.
I asked the State Department about this strategy, and as you can imagine, I got an earful. “We encourage people who do not have imminent travel plans to not request urgent travel appointments,” Arndt told me. “We are seeing high demand for these appointments and want to ensure they go to people who truly have urgent travel.”
Arndt also urged people not to book trips they don’t plan to take, noting that her department is working as hard as possible to clear the backlog. So noted.
Leave the country
If you’re trying to renew your passport, you may be better off outside the U.S. Last year, I had to renew my son’s passport, and we decided to do it at the U.S. Embassy in Doha, Qatar. We got an appointment before arriving in the country and received a passport in less than two weeks.
By the way, if you run into any problems with your passport application, you can always reach out to a manager. I publish the names, numbers and email addresses of the State Department directors in charge of passports on my consumer advocacy site, Elliott.org.
Look before you book
Avoiding this problem is easy. Check your passport validity before you book your flights. If you need a passport issued or renewed now, you shouldn’t plan to cross the border until early August to be safe.
Park’s wife, Stephanie, had a plan B. She set up an appointment with the Washington Passport Agency.
But it was a nailbiter, and there were moments when the Parks thought they might not make it. Stephanie Park showed up at the Passport Agency on the day of her appointment, wondering if there would be any other delays. Fortunately, there weren’t.
“They called her back that afternoon to pick up her new passport,” he says.
Elliott’s passport tips
I’ve lived abroad for the last two years and use my passport almost every day. Here are my favorite passport tips.
Get the nonstandard 52-page passport. You can apply for a passport with extra pages (52 instead of 28). Do it. Too many countries require an extra blank page, and you never know how much international travel you’ll do in the next decade. Better safe than sorry.
Apply for a spare. You can apply for a second U.S. passport if you need multiple visas on an ongoing basis because of frequent international travel, valid for four years. But the State Department doesn’t verify that you are using it for frequent international travel, so you can use it as a spare passport.
Keep the spare and the regular passport in separate places. Never keep both passports in the same place, for obvious reasons. So if you carry one in your purse, keep the other in your backpack. That way, if you lose one or it gets stolen, you’ll have access to the other.