Passport 101: How To Get a Passport Without All The Stress

Family with young child looking at their passports.

There is a backlog of passport applications right now. It's best to apply for a passport before planning a trip. However, if you've got an upcoming trip, you've got options. Here's advice on how to get a passport with as little stress as possible. 

How To Get a Passport: Can You Get One Online?

Learn how to get a passport quickly with these easy tips.
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If you have any of the following conditions, you need to apply in person using the form you find on the Department of State website:

  • I am applying for my first U.S. passport.
  • I am applying with a child under the age of 16.
  • My previous U.S. passport was issued when I was under 16.
  • My previous U.S. passport was lost, stolen, or damaged.
  • My previous U.S. passport was issued more than 15 years ago.

Otherwise, you may be able to renew by mail

Gather Your Documents

Gathering documents for a passport.
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The most common proof of citizenship is an original or certified copy of your birth certificate. “Certified” copies generally have a raised seal. You can use an expired passport but bring any documentation if your name has changed. If foreign-born, obtain a certificate of naturalization or citizenship. Make copies of all these documents and bring them with you.

Passports for Children Under 16

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Both parents need to be involved in the process. If both can't show up, the parent not attending must fill out a statement of awareness. If only one parent is in the picture, bring documentation – a death certificate, adoption records, court documents, etc. You'll need to show the parental relationship.

Say Cheese: Guidelines for Your Passport Photo

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Your photo needs to be in color and taken within the last six months. I can't imagine anyone putting puppy dog ears on their passport photo, but somebody must have because that's an example of what NOT to do on the passport website. No filters, no selfies.

The background needs to be white with no texture or lines. Remove your glasses. Don't use an app that crops out your background. Photos are 2×2. I avoided stress and just went to an application location that takes the picture for you. 

How Long Does It Take To Get a Passport?

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Bookmark the Department of State passport page to check your passport application status. Currently, the processing time is 10-13 weeks. If you pay for expedited service (see fees section), the current processing window is 7-9 weeks. These are NOT guarantees. Also not included is the time spent mailing the application to the agency and back to you. 

How Much Does a Passport Cost?

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A passport card is only suitable for land travel to Mexico and Canada. If you're flying, you need a traditional passport book. If you want to fly cheaply, check out these airlines. The book fee is $130.00, and the card fee is $30.Passports are valid for ten years.

For children, the fees are slightly lower at $100 for a book and $15 for a card. A minor's passport expires in five years. All passports require a $35 “execution fee.” Expedited passport service will add $60.00, and 1-2 day delivery return service is an additional $19.53. Many facilities only take cash, checks, money orders, or debit cards. 

Find an Application Location

Applying for a visa.
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The passport website lets you input a zip code and find your nearest passport acceptance facility. Some require appointments, and others are walk-ins. See if your facility will take the photo for you. There may be an additional fee for this. Catch all the fine print.  

I Have a Family Emergency and Need a Passport ASAP

Passport on luggage.
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Call the National Passport Information Center (NPIC) at 1-877-487-2778 if you have a family emergency. Tell them about your crisis. You'll have to provide documentation such as a death certificate, a letter from a mortuary, or a letter from a hospital. They will try to get you an in-person appointment to process your passport. 

I'm Traveling Within Two Weeks – Help!

Stamping a passport at customs.
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Traveling within two weeks falls under the “urgent travel” category. Call the NPIC (see phone number above) and try to get an appointment at your nearest passport agency. Be aware that there are only 24 agencies in the country. You may have to make a special trip just for this! If no appointments are available, they can message the agency processing your passport and ask them to prioritize it.

If All Else Fails, Call Your Congressperson

US Government
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I had no idea this was something you could ask of them! I searched for my Representative and scoped their website for “assistance with a Federal agency.” I explained my situation and included my travel date and passport application locator number. Someone in their office immediately started assisting me. 

The staff not only contacted the central passport agency, they found out where my application was at the time and contacted them as well. I had my passport in hand within four days. If you haven't already paid for expedited processing and overnight shipping, you'll need to do so. I was stunned and so incredibly grateful. 

What You Need To Know for an Agency Appointment

Prepping to apply for a passport.
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If you get an agency appointment, cherish it. You'll get a confirmation number, Unique Identifier, PIN, and phone number. These are necessary for your appointment. In the meantime, call the NPIC back and follow the below tip.

Ask to speak to a Duty Officer. Ask them to attach your appointment confirmation to your file with your application locator number. This *may* light a fire and get your passport processed more quickly, precluding the need for an appointment. It's worth a shot.

The Day of Your Appointment

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Be at least 15 minutes early for your appointment. No food or drink is allowed inside the office, and headphones, audio, or phone calls are prohibited. Bring printed proof of travel and your passport application. Take all the documents you brought the first time or copies if you had to send them along with your original application.

Have your social security card handy. You'll pay another $35 execution fee for this application. Another set of passport photos is required. They might have this option on site, but you must get out of line for photos, delaying your passport completion. 

The Appointment Time Is Just a Starting Point

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Real talk – this could take all day. After checking in, waits can be up to two hours. Your next step will be your face-to-face time with the processor. If the paperwork is not in order, this can take 30 minutes to two hours.

The last step is to wait. Your passport needs to be reviewed and accepted. Generally, you are told it will take 90 minutes, but I've heard of delays of up to 4 hours. Bone up on this International Travel Checklist! Remember that this will be worth it! 

Every American Citizen Should Have a Passport

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It can double as another form of I.D. It's also your key to exploring the world; sometimes, that happens spontaneously. When an opportunity drops in your lap, you'll be ready! International travel shouldn't stress you out before even leaving the U.S. Learn from my procrastination and GET OR RENEW YOUR PASSPORT.

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Amy Albers is a librarian in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta. When she's not getting lost in genealogy and local history, she is finding fun solo and family travel destinations to share with others. With over a dozen years of experience writing about family and travel on her own blog, Amy now enjoys freelance writing. She has three teen and young adult boys who turned her on to all things Marvel and Star Wars and a husband who has nurtured her into a committed SEC football fan. The beach and the great outdoors are her happy places but she's never mad at a luxury hotel. Her book reviews and latest adventures are found on Instagram at Exploring The Amysphere.