Hoping to travel abroad? Don’t put off your passport application.
By Isabella Kwai
With international travel beckoning this summer, Americans applying for new or renewed passports will have to practice patience: The State Department warned that it will take even longer to get their documents.
As of March 24, routine processing of passports will take 10 to 13 weeks, and expedited processing, which costs an extra $60, will take seven to nine weeks. That’s a two-week increase from the previous timeline.
Applicants have been frustrated for years over the passport application system. Staffing shortages during the pandemic continue to cause extensive delays and a scarcity of in-person appointments.
Lawmakers have vowed to solve the backlog, and the State Department piloted an online renewal system that was briefly offered to the public before being paused. But with a surge of applications and an especially busy summer travel season ahead, any significant easing of the jams may be a distant reality.
Why is it taking so long to get a passport?
The current delays were set off at the beginning of the pandemic, when demand for travel documents dropped and employees were let go or reassigned to other tasks, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a recent budget hearing.
“Emerging from COVID, we had to build back. And we have been in an intense effort to do that,” he said, adding that demand for travel has surged. In the 2022 fiscal year, the department issued nearly 22 million passports, the highest on record. The number is expected to increase this year.
The department receives about 500,000 passport applications each week, about 30% more than during the same time last year.
“In 40 years, I can honestly tell you I’ve never seen it this bad,” said David Alwadish, the founder of itseasy.com, a passport and visa expediting service. The bulk of Alwadish’s clients have already paid for expedited processing, he said, and many are desperate to secure a passport in time for a trip.
Travelers who need documents within 14 days can call to book an in-person appointment at a passport center. But callers who are hoping to secure an appointment or get updates on their submitted application have reported long hold times. Multiple attempts in late March to call the number listed on the State Department’s website were met with a busy tone. A spokesperson for the department said they were increasing the number of lines and staff to handle the influx of calls.
What’s being done to speed things up?
Blinken said a task force has been established to speed up processing. And hundreds of additional staff are in the hiring pipeline, according to a State Department spokesperson. Existing staff are working overtime, and others have been enlisted from across the department to help with the demand.
The budget for the Bureau of Consular Affairs, which provides passport services to U.S. citizens, has also been increased by nearly $211 million. The increase has funded contract labor, higher postage costs and new initiatives such as online passport renewal, which the government began testing last year to make it more convenient for passport holders to renew their documents.
What happened to the online renewal program?
More than 500,000 people successfully applied online to renew their passports since the service was first offered to the public this past August. Then government suspended online renewal March 8, saying it would review customer feedback and make improvements.
Although some users reported positive experiences with the online system, others were frustrated. Mina Zimmerman, a Los Angeles resident, submitted an expedited application Jan. 24 to renew her passport in time for her 15th wedding anniversary, which she planned to celebrate in Mexico April 2 — plenty of buffer time, she thought, for what the government said would be a three- to five-week wait.
But five weeks after her application was received, it hadn’t been processed. Despite repeated phone calls, Zimmerman was unable to get through. At times she even had trouble loading the website.
“It was a terrible experience, because you just had no help anywhere,” she said, adding that, as the date of her trip approached, she began to panic.
Ultimately, Zimmerman found help on Reddit. Other passport applicants advised her to call a tech support line, where she found help. Her passport arrived more than seven weeks after she applied, and two weeks before her trip.
“They definitely made the right decision to shut it down for now,” she said of the online renewal program, adding that she thought the website needed to be better equipped to handle the traffic and offer regular updates.
What if I need to travel this year?
The consensus from immigration experts and officials is to check your passport expiration date before making international plans — and to renew it as early as possible, if necessary.
With the online process suspended, applicants can still renew by mail or make appointments at passport acceptance facilities, which can include post offices, libraries and local government offices. Appointments are limited, however and some applicants have reported traveling beyond their local office to snag one. Fuji Whittenburg, the chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association State Department Liaison Committee, recommends taking care to ensure the forms are completely filled out and that the correct fees are included with a money order or check.
If possible, she said, opt for expedited passport processing ($160 for a renewal for an adult, plus the $60 fee for expediting) and expedited postage ($19.53) to mail your old passport and return the new passport. The entire process should take between seven and nine weeks, with a day or two on either end for shipping.
If you need to travel imminently, within 14 days, you can try to book an in-person appointment at a passport agency. If all else fails, both Whittenburg and Alwadish suggest reaching out to your congressperson or your senator with your passenger record locator.
If you want to avoid the ordeal a little longer? Travel within America, Alwadish said.