A Ticket to Ride
Applying for a U.S. Passport
Unless you’re traveling to Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, or the North Mariana Islands. Even though these are technically different countries, they’re all U.S. territories and don’t require a passport for entry or departure back into the U.S. As for our neighbors to the north and south, you now MUST have a valid passport to enter both Canada and Mexico. Before 2009, U.S. citizens could enter Canada or Mexico with only a certified birth certificate, but since then laws have been passed that now require an official passport.
Applying for a U.S. passport can be an intense process. Very specific documentation is required along with very specific copies of this documentation, and like any other legal process it’s riddled with nuances and exceptions to the requirements depending on the specific circumstances of the applicant.
If you’re not sure where to even begin, start HERE. The U.S. Department of State’s website walks you through the passport application process from start to finish and directs you to the exact forms you need, what you need to bring, and where you need to go. There are different application and documentation requirements for different types of citizens and applicant ages, so it’s important to ensure you have the correct information before you apply. The Department of State does an excellent job of clarifying what you need. Be sure to spend a chunk of time here!
The information below is gathered from the deep, dark corners of the Department of State and only applies to first-time passport applicants. Renewals will be for a different day.
It depends on your nature of travel. Passport books are the “typical” passports you’re used to seeing. They can be used for all international air, sea, and land travel and can also be used to acquire a travel visa if needed. Then, there’s the handy little passport card (found here) that slides right into your wallet. It’s less expensive than the passport book but is only acceptable for land and sea border crossings between the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean. The passport card is NOT valid for international air travel. If you’ll be traveling internationally by air, you MUST have the passport book. Unless you plan on frequently crossing international borders via vehicle, boat, or train (to visit family, get to work, etc.), you will not need a passport card. Stick with the book!
First time applicants cannot mail in their applications and MUST apply in person at an approved passport acceptance facility or passport center. If you are 18 or older, only you must appear. If your child is applying for a passport and they are 16 or 17, they must appear along with at least one parent/legal guardian. If your child is younger than 16, your child must appear ideally with BOTH parents/legal guardians present at the time of application.
The Department of State defines a child’s parents/guardians as whoever is listed on the birth certificate for both mother AND father unless there is official paperwork to show a legal change in parental rights, such as an adoption or death of a parent. Other than that, both parents listed on a child’s birth certificate MUST give permission in order for the passport to be approved. The easiest way to avoid complication is for both parents to appear in person along with the child, but there are situations in which one parent might not able to physically appear: death of a parent, military deployment, hospitalization/illness, or maybe a parent is listed on the birth certificate but isn’t involved in the child’s life and cannot be located. Fear not! You have options but they’ll need some extra time to research. If one parent cannot appear in person you must provide additional documentation to explain the absence. To find out what kind of documentation you’ll need for your specific situation, click HERE.
An adult applicant is defined as someone 18 and older. The applicant will need to provide:
- The DS-11 form (found here!) (application for a U.S. passport), completed but NOT signed. Applicant will sign in person at application appointment.
- Certified birth certificate
- Copy of certified birth certificate: front and back, single sided, black and white
- Valid photo ID: in-state driver’s license, military ID, government employee ID
- Copy of photo ID: single sided, front and back
- Passport photo
A child applicant is defined as someone younger than 16. Although the parent will be the one gathering the documentation, filling out the paperwork, and driving to the appointment, technically the CHILD is the individual applying for the passport. All documentation needs to be completed with the child’s name as the applicant and NOT the parent’s. A child applicant will need to provide the same documentation as an adult applicant but will also be required to provide parental relationship documentation.
A child applicant will need to provide:
- The DS-11 form (click here!) (application for a U.S. passport) filled out with the CHILD’S information, completed but NOT signed. The parent will sign all documentation as the legal guardian on behalf of the child in person at application appointment.
- Child’s certified birth certificate
- Copy of child’s birth certificate – front and back, single sided, black and white
- Documentation listing the child’s legal parents/guardians: certified U.S. birth certificate, foreign birth certificate, adoption decree, divorce/custody decree
- Valid photo ID for each parent/guardian present with child at application appointment: driver’s license, U.S. passport, military ID, government employee ID
- Copy of parental photo ID: front and back, single sided
- Proof of parental consent: both parents/guardians appearing in person with child or additional documentation explaining absence.
- Child’s passport photo
Whew. Walk in the park, right?
Your child will need to provide all of the adult documentation requirements listed above, but will also be required to present their own valid photo ID and a copy of it. Your teen will also be required to show Parental Awareness (more info here), meaning they must have at least one parent or guardian present with them to show knowledge they’re applying for a passport. This parent must be one listed on the teen’s birth certificate unless there is additional documentation to explain any discrepancy. Although the second parent doesn’t have to appear in person for this age group, the passport application may be denied if the Department of State receives written objection from the absent parent.
Once you’ve completed and gathered the required documentation for you and/or your child, you must apply in person at a passport acceptance facility or at a passport center.
At a passport acceptance facility, a clerk will go through your stack of stuff to make sure you have everything, verify your identities, and instruct you on what to sign and where. The agent will then submit your application(s) to the Department of State to be processed and hopefully approved. These facilities are located throughout your community and are typically easily accessible, like post offices and county clerk’s offices. Find your nearest passport acceptance facility HERE.
A passport center, on the other hand, literally IS the Department of State. These centers can process and approve passports in less than two weeks and can sometimes even issue them same-day. There are only 27 in the entire country so some travel may be involved to reach one, but if you need a passport in a hurry you’ll want to make an appointment at a passport center instead of a passport acceptance facility.
Whichever facility you choose, be sure to schedule an appointment online in advance to ensure passport services will be offered at the time of your arrival.
To make an appointment at a passport acceptance facility, click HERE
To make an appointment at a passport center, click HERE
NO, the birth certificate from the hospital won’t do. The birth certificate you get from the hospital is an informational birth certificate, not an official, certified birth certificate. The best way to tell the difference between the two is that a certified birth certificate will have a registrar’s seal. The seal might be raised, embossed, impressed, or multicolored. The type of seal used varies by state but serves as proof that the birth certificate is a government issued, certified document. Every applicant must provide an original, certified birth certificate with their passport application. To obtain a certified copy of you or your child’s birth certificate, you must contact the vital records office in the state of birth for instructions on how to request a copy and submit the required fees.
Two separate fees must be paid to apply for a new passport: an application fee and an execution fee. Both are paid when the applicant appears in person to submit their application.
The application fee covers the processing it takes to approve, issue, and print your passport and is paid to the Department of State. You MUST pay the application fee with a personal check or money order; debit or credit cards will NOT be accepted. The clerk will include your check or money order in your application to send to the Department of State. The execution fee covers the processing services the clerk provides to submit your application and is paid to the passport acceptance facility in which you appear. Most facilities do accept credit or debit cards for this fee.
For child applicants under 16
- Passport book: $80 application fee; $35 execution fee
- Passport card: $15 application fee; $35 execution fee
- Passport book + card: $95 application fee; $35 execution fee
For adult applicants 16 and older
- Passport book: $110 application fee; $35 execution fee
- Passport card: $30 application fee; $35 execution fee
- Passport book + card: $140 application fee; $35 execution fee
*Extra fees will be charged for Expedited Service and passport photos
Yes. You must submit a clear, color, 2 inch by 2 inch photo (more here) on matte or glossy photo paper taken within the last 6 months. Your head must be between 1 inch to 1 ⅜ inches from the bottom of your chin to the top of your head and must be against a beige or white background. No selfies, filters, headphones, glasses, closed eyes, colored or patterned backgrounds, digitally altered photos, or photos that are damaged or creased. No hats or head coverings allowed unless it’s traditional religious attire or used for medical purposes. You’ll need to submit a signed statement or doctor’s note for either of these exceptions. You must face the camera head on and sport a neutral expression or natural smile. No funny faces! You can take, print, and submit your own passport photo but you’ll need to make sure it meets all of the above requirements. CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, and pretty much any other place with a photo department also takes approved passport photos for anywhere from $6-$12 dollars. Most passport acceptance facilities also take passport photos for an additional fee and can do so at the time of your application appointment. These fees vary depending on the facility and will be listed when you schedule your appointment online.
As long as your cruise departs and arrives at the same U.S. port, you are not required to have a passport even if there are international stops in between. However, you WILL be required to show other proof of citizenship, like a certified birth certificate or certificate of naturalization. Please make sure you bring a certified birth certificate and not a hospital birth certificate or else the cruise staff literally won’t let you on the boat and that would be really, really sad. Although passports aren’t required, cruise lines do recommend all cruise ship passengers hold a valid passport book just in case there’s an emergency that requires a passenger to be flown back to the U.S. from another country.
Routine processing time is currently 4-6 weeks, mailing time included.
There are a couple of options. You can pay an extra $60 expedition fee at a passport acceptance facility to shorten your wait time from 4-6 weeks to 2-3 weeks. If you need your passport sooner than 2-3 weeks, you’ll need to schedule an appointment at an actual passport center. These centers are run by the Department of State and although some travel may be involved to reach one, they can issue a passport in as little as 8 days or sometimes even same-day.
Once everything is submitted you can sit back and wait…and worry about whether or not you did everything right. You can track your passport application status HERE or call the National Passport Information Center at 1-877-487-2778).
Applying for a passport can feel overwhelming at first but typically the hardest part is gathering all the required documentation and figuring out where in the hell you put everyone’s birth certificates. The process will be much easier and smoother if you research in advance to find out exactly what you need to provide. Don’t wait until you drag yourselves all the way to the post office to find out you have the wrong kind of birth certificates.
Happy document hunting and bon voyage!