You’ll not get beyond the check-in counter at the airport without a valid passport… if your destination is outside the United States of America. Americans are even required to show their passport when traveling to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean. Applying for a US Passport is the most important item to consider once a decision to travel has been made. The US also issues a “passport card,” which is about the size of a credit card. This card can only be used to re-enter the United States at land border crossing and sea ports of entry from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. It cannot be used for international air travel, so we’ll not discuss this option any further here.
If you have a passport, it must be valid for six (6) months after your travel is complete, that is, the day of your return to the USA. Rules differ by country, but for European countries, this is the case. Additionally, your air carrier will not allow boarding for an international flight unless your passport is valid for six (6) months beyond your travel dates.
I have witnessed several passport-related events that have caused stress and even canceled trips. I recall a young lady signing up and paying to travel to Europe with her French teacher and friends. She (and her mother) waited a long time to apply for her passport and then worried daily when checking the mail, hoping it would arrive shortly. Unfortunately, her passport did not arrive before her travel date, and she had to stay behind and watch her friends go to Europe without her. On another occasion, a friend realized his passport would expire during his scheduled trip to Europe. To make matters even worse, he realized this only a couple of days before his trip was to begin. Thankfully, he called the National Passport Information Center, made an appointment, and drove 500 miles to renew his passport in person.
Applying for a new US Passport
Applying for and obtaining a US Passport, or even renewing an old one, can take some time. The average standard delivery time is 4 to 6 weeks. For an adult (18 years or older), the application and service fee is $165 for a passport with a validity period of 10 years. Children under 16 are only eligible for a passport with a validity period of 5 years, and the application fee is only $130. Forms and Information are available at: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/passports.html
When applying for a new passport, it must be done in person at an Acceptable Facility or US Passport Agency. Applicants must complete Form DS-11 and bring it with an approved original document showing evidence of US citizenship, a photo identification document, and two recent passport-sized photos. Full details and online printable forms can be found at: https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/passports.html.
There are many agencies where you can apply for a passport. Some include:
Federal, state, and probate courts,
Clerk of the Court Offices,
Post offices, and
Some public libraries.
For a complete list, search here.
When applying for or renewing a passport, why not asked for extra pages? You can request 52 pages instead of the usual 28, and it won’t cost a dime. This can only happen when requesting a new passport. See the details here.
Renewing a US Passport
If you have a current passport no older than 15 years, you can renew it by mail without having to visit an agency in person. You will need to complete Form DS-82, pay the application fee ($130), include two recent passport photos, and send it by mail to the passport agency. There are restrictions to this process, so it is a good idea to read all the applicable information at: https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/passports/renew.html
Name Changes and Errors
If you find spelling or date errors on your passport or have had a legal name change, you’ll need to get a new passport. This is an easy process and can be completed by mail. https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/passports/services/correction.html
Faster Service on the Application
For an extra $60, passport renewal or a new application can be expedited. See the websites mentioned above for rates and details.
You have your passport, so now what?
Once you have received your passport, there are a few things you should consider.
- Make copies of the first couple of pages of your passport. Give one copy to someone at home and bring another copy with you on tour stuffed in an inner pocket of your suitcase.
- It is also a good idea to keep two extra original passport-sized photos on hand with you when traveling.
- When traveling, keep your passport with you at all times. The safest and best way to do this is to keep it in your moneybelt. I put mine in a small plastic sandwich bag to keep it dry. Keeping your passport safe is very important. If it is lost while out of the country, you’ll be stuck for several days trying to get a replacement. Replacing lost passports requires a trip to the U.S. Embassy, which will take precious time away from your tour experience.
- Many countries, especially outside of Western Europe, require a VISA. A VISA is an official document attached to one of your passport pages. It takes some time to apply for and receive a VISA, and it requires that you send in your passport to have the VISA officially attached to your passport. This means that your passport will not be in your possession for some time. Be sure to do your homework, check the US Department of State to find out if you need a VISA, and leave yourself plenty of time to complete the VISA process before your departure date.
- Be frugal with your blank passport pages. Often an immigration office will open a passport to the first blank page he encounters and stamp it. This is ok if you seldom travel and have plenty of blank pages. But for frequent travelers, this wastes a lot of useful passport “real estate.” Consider placing sticky notes on blank pages to help direct the agent away from the useful blank pages.
- If you are a frequent traveler, consider applying for Global Entry. This is a program for US citizens to expedite their re-entry back home at a US airport. There are fees and an extensive application process, but if you travel a lot, it is worth the effort.
- Enroll in the S.T.E.P. program, an acronym for Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. This is a free service for US citizens traveling abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest US Embassy or Consulate. Their motto is “stay informed, stay connected, stay safe!” Enrollment is a simple process. Each time you leave the USA on a trip, visit the S.T.E.P. website and register your trip, destination, and duration. Should a problem arise, you’ll be contacted by the Embassy in your destination country. Additionally, the Embassy will contact you or family members in an emergency, whether natural disaster, civil unrest, or family emergency.
Traveling Americans and Passports
There are about 340 million people in the USA, and according to the US Department of State, there are 149,359,051 American citizens who possess valid passports. That’s only about 48% which means there are a whopping 52% of us that have never left the USA! Just imagine the cultural shift if those numbers bumped up to 75% or more. We might have a better understanding of other people groups and a more tolerant outlook on the varied cultures in the world today.
If your Spouse or Travel Partner has a Passport… you should too!
Recently, we were touring with a group around London, and one of our passengers became so sick he had to be admitted to the hospital. This gentleman had a US Passport (obviously) and travel insurance. The hospital wanted to keep him for several days. We contacted his wife at home in the USA and suggested she take advantage of the travel insurance feature and fly to London to be with her husband. To our shock, she informed us she could not fly over because she did not have a passport. Luckily, the gentleman was in good care at the hospital and flew home in a few days.
A passport is essential to travel outside the USA, and it takes a bit of work to jump through all the hoops to get one. Apply for or renew a passport as soon as you think you might travel internationally. Passports must remain valid for at least six months beyond your travel period. For a fee, expedited service can get your passport issued in as little as 2-3 days. It is a good idea for all US citizens to hold a valid passport just in case an emergency arises. Unfortunately, only about 37% of us do. Once you have a passport, keep it in a safe place, make several copies, never carry it in your back pocket, and consider getting extra pages with your application.