You need to show more than just a driver's license to fly back from your snorkeling vacation in Cancun. As of January 23, 2007, U.S. citizens cannot fly into the United States from Canada, Mexico, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, or Bermuda without a valid passport. If you've got a trip planned, note that it now takes 10 to 12 weeks to get a passport using the routine service option. For an extra charge, there's also an expedited service. This will get you on your way in about three weeks.
You need a passport to return from these places even if you don't plan to fly. Beginning January 31, 2008, everyone traveling between the United States and Canada by car, train, or boat must show a document compliant with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) or government-issued identification (think driver's license) and proof of citizenship (think birth certificate). This even applies to those traveling by ferry - and of course by cruise ship.
For those frequent travelers living in U.S. border communities and for those traveling on commercial maritime vessels, the Department of State has created a limited-use, wallet-size passport card A less expensive alternative to the traditional U.S. passport book, this card is only a valid substitute when traveling by land and sea.
Why these new changes? You can thank the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which aims to make it easier for U.S. citizens (and foreign visitors with correct documentation) to enter the United States, while increasing border security. Passports facilitate processing of travelers at ports of entry, so requiring them for all travelers will streamline your experience as you reenter the United States.
If it's been a while since you've applied for a passport, you should be aware of other recent developments:
- All new passports are embedded with a microchip (see "The New Electronic Passport," below).
- You can now check the status of your passport application online.
- A new $12 security surcharge is applied to all applications; that amount is included in the fees listed below.
- All passport applicants under the age of 14 must appear in person, even if the child has been issued a passport before.
- Parents who submit applications for their children under 14 without applying for a passport themselves must have their child's consent statement notarized.
New Electronic Passports
All new U.S. tourist passports issued by the State Department now contain a microchip containing the bearer's personal and biometric data. These new Electronic Passports - or e-passports - address national security concerns, cut down on forgeries, and comply with an agreement with other countries that are already using electronic forms of identification. While all current passports will remain valid until their normal expiration, all new passports issued in the United States will be e-passports.
These new passports are similar in shape and size to the old passports, but they have a microchip in the back cover that communicates with a special reader over a radio frequency. The chip carries the same personal data normally included on a passport, plus a digital photograph that is used with facial recognition technology at passport control locations to make sure the person carrying the passport really is you.
If the attractive new design doesn't assuage your concerns about entering the age of biometric identification, consider that this technology will prevent anyone else from using your passport for nefarious purposes at the border - even if the bearer really, really looks like you.
Applying for a Passport
Passports are the ultimate in personal identification - they are accepted as proof of identity and nationality in any country across the globe. In most cases, this critical travel document is required to enter and exit other countries. In the United States, passports are issued to U.S. citizens by the Passport Services Office of the U.S. Department of State (the State Department).
While passports are not difficult to get, you do have to plan ahead. Ordinarily a passport can take up to six weeks to be processed and mailed back to you, but in busier travel periods it can take a little longer.
You also need to have the accepted forms of documentation to prove you are who you say you are - those documents will be carefully reviewed before a passport is issued. The State Department wants to see proof of both your identity and your nationality before it will issue you a passport.
Everyone traveling internationally needs a passport - even newborns and infants. Not only must your children apply with you in person, but for those younger than 14 years old, you must also provide proof of their relationship to you. The State Department's Web site has details on the special application requirements for children younger than 14.
Are you wondering about the status of your passport application? Instead of biting your nails for weeks, you can now go online to check the status of your application. Gone are the days when you agonized over whether your application (and personal documents) were even received - now you can simply log on to the State Department's Web site to find out instantly how things are going.
You must apply in person if:
- This is your first passport.
- Your passport has been lost, stolen or damaged.
- Your passport is expired and was issued either 15 years ago or before you turned 16.
- Your name has changed since you were last issued a passport and you have no legal documentation of the name change.
Unless you plan to travel within two weeks, you may apply at any of the 7,000 Passport Acceptance Facilities nationwide, including many post offices, public libraries, courthouses, and other government offices.
If you're traveling within 14 days, however, you must instead make an appointment to visit a Passport Agency in one of the following cities: Aurora, Colo.; Boston; Chicago; Honolulu; Houston; Los Angeles; Miami; New Orleans; New York; Philadelphia; San Francisco; Seattle; Stamford, Conn.; and Washington, D.C. These agencies accept only urgent applications.
What To Bring
You can begin the application process at home by downloading and completing the Application for a U.S. Passport, form DS-11. To view and print the form, you'll need to have Adobe's free Reader software installed. An even easier option is to fill out the form electronically and save it to your computer to print - no cramped handwriting required. Don't sign the form until asked to by the official handling your application, who will want to witness your signature.
In addition to the completed application form, you will be required to provide the following documentation:
- Proof of U.S. citizenship (show one of the following documents):
- Certified copy of your birth certificate.
- Naturalization certificate (if born outside the United States).
- Certificate of citizenship.
- Consular report of birth abroad (if your parents were U.S. citizens).
- Your expired passport.
- Proof of identity. A driver's license or old passport will fulfill this requirement.
- Two identical photographs. These must be photos taken within the last six months, they must be in color and they must be two inches square. They must be full-face pictures taken by a company that specifically offers passport photos. Special passport photo stores, many camera shops, and some drug stores and copying service companies offer passport photo services. The photos cannot be altered or retouched in any way.
How to Renew or Replace Your Passport
Once a representative of the State Department has seen you in person when you first applied for a passport, the renewal process is much easier. In fact, in most cases you can renew by mail simply by sending in your old passport, some new photos, and a renewal fee. This is true even if your name has changed - as long as you can document it. Even better, passports issued to those 16 and older are valid for 10 years, so you don't even need to renew very often.
You may renew by mail if all of the following are true:
- Your passport is 15 years old or newer.
- You were 16 or older when you got it.
- You've still got the passport, and it's not damaged.
- Your name is the same, or you can show that you legally changed it.
To renew by mail, collect the following:
- A completed Application for a U.S. Passport by Mail, form DS-82.
- Your current passport.
- Any required name-change documentation.
- Two new identical passport photos.
- A $110 passport application fee.
Send the above in a padded envelope to:
National Passport Processing
P.O. Box 13349
Philadelphia, PA 19101-3349
Your original passport will be canceled and returned to you along with your new passport.
If your passport is lost or mutilated, or if your name-change document is other than a marriage certificate, divorce decree, adoption decree, or court order, then you can't renew by mail. Instead, you must apply for a renewal in person at a Passport Acceptance Facility using the Application for a U.S. Passport, form DS-11.
Replacing a Lost or Stolen Passport
In addition to applying in person for a new passport using form DS-11 (above), if your passport was lost or stolen you'll also need to submit the Statement Regarding Lost or Stolen Passport, form DS-64, with your application for a replacement. The original application fees will apply.
If the loss or theft happens while you are outside the United States, immediately report the particulars to the local police and a U.S. Consulate or U.S. Embassy. Always write your current address in the front of your passport; if a passport is found, it will be mailed to you.
Application and Renewal Fees
First-time passport applicants pay two fees: an application fee and an execution fee. Depending on where you apply, the fees might be paid together or separately. If you apply at one of the 7,000 Passport Acceptance Facilities, you'll pay the passport application fee to "U.S. Department of State," but you'll pay the execution fee to the Passport Acceptance Facility. At any of the 14 Passport Agencies, the fees are combined and paid to "U.S. Department of State."
New Passport Book:
- Applicants 16 and older pay a $110 application fee and a $25 execution fee, for a total of $135.
- Applicants less than 16 years old pay a $60 application fee and a $25 execution fee, for a total of $85.
New Passport Card:
- Applicants 16 and older pay a $30 application fee and a $25 execution fee, for a total of $55.
- Applicants less than 16 years old pay a $10 application fee and a $25 execution fee, for a total of $35.
- To renew a Passport Book, eligible adult applicants pay $110.
- To renew a Passport Card, eligible adult applicants pay $30.
Different locations accept different forms of payment.
You may expedite your first-time passport application by appearing in person at a Passport Agency and paying a $60 charge in addition to the normal application fees, plus the cost of overnight delivery service to return your new passport to you. To expedite your renewal by mail, the same additional fees apply, so you should include them with your application. In both cases, you'll receive your new passport within three weeks.
Certain third-party companies specialize in expediting and streamlining the passport application process. If you are in a rush or you just don't want to unravel the government red tape, you can call on these specialists to help you out.
One of the most common worries about storing personal data on a portable microchip such as the one found in e-passports is the possibility of "skimming," whereby someone standing very close by with a small signal scanner surreptitiously eavesdrops on a microchip's radio signals as it's transmitting data - and snags someone's personal information.
The State Department is confident that the new e-passports are securely protected from this practice. Through antiskimming technology, data on your e-passport will be protected at all times. In addition, a technique called Basic Access Control prevents the microchip from being unlocked for reading until a passport inspector has first scanned the printed data in the front cover.
Furthermore, each e-passport cover contains a shielding material to make unauthorized reading difficult. Finally, a number of processes are in place to prevent anyone coming close enough to your passport while it's being legitimately scanned to pick up on any signals (the chips are designed to be read within only four inches of an appropriate scanner).
For more information about the new Electronic Passport and the security measures in place to protect your identity, read the State Department's answers to frequently asked questions.