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How to Get Your First Passport

An application requires paperwork, photos, fees and more. Here's how to navigate each step of the process.
Aug. 22, 2018
Credit Cards, Travel, Travel Credit Cards
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If you’re a first-time international traveler, the lure of adventure can be overshadowed by the ultimate killjoy: red tape. But applying for your passport doesn’t have to be a huge hassle.

Here’s all you need to know to streamline your application process, so you can enjoy the worldwide access that a passport provides you.

Why you might need a passport

A passport is a document that certifies your identity and nationality, and you’ll need one if you plan to travel internationally. In the United States, passports are issued by the Department of State, and its website recommends that you get one if:

  • You have family living or traveling abroad.
  • You’re considering taking a vacation abroad.
  • You have a job that might require you to travel internationally.

If any of those criteria apply to you, decide whether you actually need a traditional passport book, or whether a less expensive passport card will do.

Passport books are essential for all international air travel. However, both passport books and passport cards can be used to travel to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean or Bermuda via land border crossings or sea ports of entry. The application and execution fees for a passport card total $65 — as opposed to the $145 total you’ll pay for a passport book — but you’ll be more limited in where you can go with just a passport card.

» MORE: Once you get your passport, let NerdWallet help plan your trip

Questions to ask yourself first

First-timers — or people who have extenuating circumstances and can’t renew their passports through the mail — will need to take care of some paperwork, take a special passport photo, and apply in person with the required fees at an acceptance facility.

Per the State Department’s website, other cases that require in-person applications:

  • You are younger than 16.
  • Your previous U.S. passport was issued when you were younger than 16.
  • Your previous U.S. passport was lost, stolen or damaged.
  • Your previous U.S. passport was issued more than 15 years ago.

If you’re a passport newbie or otherwise meet any of the above criteria, here’s what you’ll need to do next.

Prepare your paperwork

1. Fill out the DS-11 application form

The DS-11 form asks a series of questions regarding your identity, contact information, family, marital status and more.

2. Gather required documents

You will need to present:

  • a) Citizenship evidence: Acceptable documents vary depending on why you’re applying (see above), but proof of citizenship can include an eligible U.S. birth certificate, your previous (and undamaged) passport, or a certificate of naturalization or citizenship, among others.
  • b) At least one form of identification: Acceptable documents include a valid in-state driver’s license or learner’s permit, a government employee ID, a U.S. military or military dependent ID, a green card, or a Trusted Traveler ID (such as the one you’d get from a Global Entry membership). Note that additional requirements will apply if your ID is out of state, or if you are going through gender transition.
  • c) Photocopies of both a and b: This applies to whatever documents you are presenting as proof of citizenship and ID. The photocopies must be legible, black and white, on white 8.5-by-11-inch standard paper, and single sided. (Include photocopies of the backs of any papers that have printed information on them.)

Determine any special circumstances

While the above paperwork may suffice for many applicants, you might face additional requirements, depending on your situation. For example:

  • If you’re younger than 16: The application will additionally require proof of parental relationship and consent from parents or guardians. If one of the child’s parents or legal guardians is unable to go in person to the application center with the child, additional paperwork is required.
  • If you lost your previous passport or it was stolen: While you can go about replacing your lost or stolen passport at any time, you have to report the actual loss immediately. Requirements for getting a replacement differ depending on where you were when the incident happened and how soon you need another one, but you’ll have to file a DS-11 form in person regardless.
  • If you’re behind on child support payments: If you owe $2,500 or more in child support, you won’t be able to get a U.S. passport until you pay the amount that’s in arrears.
  • If you’re undergoing a gender transition: You will need among other things a medical certification showing that you are in the process of, or have had, clinical treatment.

For a full list of special circumstances and their requirements, visit the State Department’s website.

Get your photo taken

You have several options when it comes to getting a passport photo taken, but before you choose a provider, make sure you understand the photo requirements. They are rigid, and submitting an inadequate one could lead to a delay in receiving your passport. Follow the guidelines of the U.S. Department of State. Among them:

  • Sizing: Passport photos must be 2-by-2 inches, and within that your head must be 1 to 1⅜ inches from the bottom of your chin to the top of your head.
  • Print and image quality: The submitted photos must be printed in color on matte or glossy photo quality paper, and the photo needs to have been taken in the last six months. If your appearance has changed significantly from the time the photo was taken (surgery, piercings, tattoos, major weight fluctuation, gender transition), you might be required to submit a new photo. The photo also needs to be exposed enough that there are no shadows across the face and the background is bright enough.
  • Facial expression: Applicants need to face the camera head-on with their full face in view, with both eyes open and a neutral facial expression or natural smile.
  • Background: The background of your photo needs to be plain white or off-white with no patterns.
  • Clothing and accessories: You aren’t allowed to wear glasses, a hat or a head covering except for medical or religious purposes. If you need them for medical reasons, you must have a signed note from your doctor. If you wear a hat or head covering for religious purposes, you need to submit a signed statement that the item in your photo is “recognized, traditional religious attire that is customarily or required to be worn continuously in public.” Regardless, your full face and hairline must be visible. Headphones or wireless hands-free devices are prohibited in passport photos. Camouflage attire or uniforms are generally not allowed, with exceptions made for religious reasons.
  • Rules for children: Children must appear in photos alone (no parents in the frame). When photographing an infant, it’s recommended that you lay them down on a white sheet to take their photo. If you’re taking a picture of an infant, it’s permissible for their eyes to be closed or not entirely open, but all other children must have their eyes open.
  • Digital altering: Don’t even think about opening your Facetune app; the only digital altering that’s allowed to be done to passport photos is the removal of red-eye. Copied or digitally scanned photos are also prohibited.

Finding a photo provider

Once you have a handle on the photo guidelines, you can go to a drugstore, postal provider or certain passport acceptance facilities to have a passport photo taken, generally for a fee. Wholesale clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club also offer passport photo services for around $5.

Alternately, there are cheaper DIY options. For example, the website www.epassportphoto.com and apps like Passport Photo ID Studio say they can help you create admissible passport photos from the comfort of your home. Be aware that while you are allowed to use a digital camera to take your photo, the State Department notes that mobile phones may not be able to render images that meet the quality guidelines for a passport.

Apply in person

This is the easy part. Once you’ve assembled your paperwork and taken your photo, all that’s left to do is visit a passport acceptance facility and pay for the application and processing.

Pay the required fees

The application and execution fees for passport books and passport cards and the fees for optional additional services are as follows:

ADULT APPLICANTS
(16 years and older)
APPLICATION FEE
EXECUTION FEE
First-time adult passport book$110$35
First-time adult passport card$30$35
First-time adult passport book and card$140$35
MINOR APPLICANTS
(Under 16 years)
APPLICATION FEE
EXECUTION FEE
Minor passport book$80$35
Minor passport card$15$35
Minor passport book and card$95$35

Additional fees apply for:

  • Expedited processing: $60; see below for processing times.
  • One- to two-day delivery: $15.89.
  • File search fee: $150 (if you’re unable to provide certain required documents).

Methods of payment

The application fee and the execution fee are paid separately, but additional service fees can be combined with the application fee.

  • For the application fee and any additional services fees, you can pay via check (personal, certified, cashier’s or traveler’s) or money orders payable to “U.S. Department of State.” You won’t be able to use credit or debit cards for these fees, unless you happen to apply at a passport agency, which is different from an acceptance facility and generally handles expedited or otherwise urgent applications. (Read more on processing times below.)
  • The $35 execution fee can be paid with money orders at all passport acceptance facility locations. Some locations will accept personal checks and cash, and you might be able to use credit cards at U.S. postal facilities and some other locations. Contact an acceptance facility in advance to verify what forms of payment it accepts.

Wait for processing

Routine application processing takes four to six weeks, and expedited processing — which costs an additional $60 — takes two to three weeks. For your first passport, you must be at an acceptance facility in order to request an expedited application.

If you need your passport in less than two to three weeks, the Department of State lists guidelines:

  • If you have a life-or-death emergency: Defined as “serious illnesses, injuries, or deaths in your immediate family that require you to travel outside the United States within 72 hours.” If you find yourself in such a position, you must call to make an appointment and bring all of the normal passport documentation, plus proof of your emergency: death certificate, mortuary statement or letter from a medical professional.
  • If you have urgent travel plans: Make an appointment at a passport agency or center. You can only go to the appointment within two weeks of international travel, and you need to bring proof of your travel plans (and pay the expediated fee) to be considered for a quick turnaround for your application.

Renewing your passport

Applying for a passport can be a time-consuming process. The good news is that once you get one, it has a long shelf life. If you’re 16 years or older, your passport doesn’t expire for 10 years. For children younger than 16, it lasts five years.

When it comes to renewal, you can do so through the mail, as long as your most recent passport meets all of the following criteria:

  • It’s submitted with your application and is not damaged.
  • It was issued when you were 16 or older.
  • It was issued in the last 15 years.
  • It has your current name (or you have documents to support your name change).

Since the government already has proof of your identification and citizenship from your previous passport, just fill out the DS-82 form and mail it in with any relevant name-change documents, your last passport, a new photo and an application fee. You won’t need to pay the execution fee again as long as your previous passport meets all of the qualifications mentioned above.

Happy travels!

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