Need a Passport for a Trip? Give Yourself a Big Time Cushion

If you don't pay fees for expedited service, you should expect to wait a few months for a new or renewed passport.
Sally French
By Sally French 
Edited by Kevin Berry

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If you’re a procrastinator and your passport is set to expire, hopefully you don’t have an international trip planned within the next three months (at least). The U.S. Department of State is warning of massive delays in turnaround times both for issuing new — and renewing existing — passports.

U.S. passport renewal

Passport renewal applications can be done in person or by mail. Either way, the State Department suggests leaving at least three months (or more) between the time you submit your passport application and the day you receive the actual passport.

For standard passport processing service for renewals, the State Department anticipates eight to 11 weeks for processing.

Plus, that doesn’t even account for time to put together your application. Though not as onerous as first-time passport applications, you’ll still need to put in effort to gather some materials, such as a photograph from the last six months.

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Applying for a U.S. passport for the first time

Children under age 16, first-time applicants and applicants who had their passport lost or stolen must apply in person — no mail-only option is allowed. Budget time to get an appointment at a local acceptance facility, which is typically a post office, library or city clerk's office.

Appointments are required at some, but not all, locations. Once you’ve applied at an acceptance facility, expect even lengthier processing times than what the renewal folks will experience.

For new passports, the State Department estimates it'll take 10 to 13 weeks to process your application. If you need it sooner than that, you can pay $60 for expedited processing. But even still, the speedy version still takes an estimated seven to nine weeks.

And again, make time to gather your application materials, which includes evidence of U.S. citizenship for new passports. If you need time to track down your birth certificate from that dusty box in your parent’s garage, hopefully your international trip is even further than 11 weeks out.

Your passport may need at least six months' validity remaining

Sometimes, even a valid passport that’s set to expire soon might be insufficient. Some countries require passports to be valid at least six months beyond your trip dates.

So even if your passport doesn’t expire until 2024, your late 2023 travel plans may be in jeopardy if your passport expires within six months of that trip. Some airlines won’t even let you board with a passport set to expire within that window. See which countries have such requirements via the State Department’s Country Information page.

What if you can’t wait that long to renew your passport?

With luck — and some extra money — you may be able to get your passport sooner. The State Department offers a few types of rush passport services:

Pay extra for expedited service by mail

For an additional $60, you can have your passport renewal processed and sent to you in five to seven weeks (versus the standard 11 weeks). “Expedited” is a bit of a loose term here, and you’ll still need to plan for some turnaround time.

Additionally, the State Department recommends purchasing rush mail delivery, which costs an additional $18.32 for 1-2 day delivery of your completed passport.

Use this service if: You need your passport within the next five to seven weeks.

Claim a life-or-death emergency

Hopefully you don’t fall in this category, but if you have an eligible life-or-death emergency (eligible reasons include having an immediate family member outside of the U.S. who has died, is in hospice care, or has a life-threatening illness or injury) and you need to travel to a foreign country within three business days, you may qualify for an emergency, in-person appointment.

You’ll have to provide proof of the emergency, such as a death certificate or letter from the hospital, plus your airline ticket and passport application. From there, you’ll have to call the State Department’s Life-or-Death Emergency Service number to make an appointment.

There are only about two dozen locations nationwide offering such appointments, so you’ll likely need to make domestic travel plans just to get that rush passport.

And to make matters worse, you can’t make an appointment online. Due to the massive backlog, the State Department has actually disabled its online booking system. Bake in extra time to listen to on-hold music.

Use this service if: You need your passport within three business days and you have a valid emergency.

Hope for the best

You may also qualify for a rush passport if you have urgent international travel plans within two weeks but don’t have emergency proof.

Appointments are extremely limited though, and the State Department warns that there’s no guarantee you’ll get an appointment. Like the emergency process, you’ll have to call the same number (no online appointments either) and get your passport in person at one of those roughly two dozen locations nationwide.

Use this service if: You need your passport within three business days.

Why are passport processing times suddenly so slow?

Especially at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, passport processing times massively slowed. At one point, the State Department recommend leaving 18 weeks (that's more than four months) due to not just its own processing delays, but mail delays from the U.S. Postal Service.

In 2020, the State Department said processing times were roughly 12 weeks. But now, many years past the initial shock of lockdowns, processing times are potentially even higher — up to as many as 13 weeks.

The State Department is chalking it all up to a record number of people applying for passports and renewals of existing ones. In fact, the State Department estimates that 2023 is on track to set the record for the highest demand of passports ever, far surpassing volumes seen during previous surges in demand in 2007 and 2017. 

In some weeks during the winter of 2022 into 2023, the Department received more than 500,000 applications. Not only did that exceed projections, but it marked a record number for that time of year.

Renew your U.S. passport now

With most borders open now and far fewer COVID-19 restrictions, international travel might be one of your top-of-mind vacation plans. But here’s something you never want on your mind: stressing over a rushed passport.

Beyond just the agony, rush passports can be expensive given the fees for expedited service, the cost of faster shipping and the potential extra trip to visit one of the few emergency passport centers.

Check now to see when your passport expires. If it’s anytime in the next year or so, start the application process now. There are enough reasons that travel is stressful, complicated and expensive already. Don't let an expired passport be one of them.

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