A passport can open the world to you, and you don’t want to leave home without it if you’re traveling beyond U.S. borders. It will be required to prove your citizenship and gain entry to another country, as well as for readmittance to the U.S. when you come back home.
Even if you’re not a jet-setter, a passport can serve as an excellent primary piece of identification in place of a driver’s license. Getting a passport and keeping it current can have several benefits.
Here’s what you need to know to get or renew a passport, including the steps required, fees, and ways to make the process as seamless as possible.
What Is a Passport?
A passport is a document issued by an authorized official of a country to one of its citizens and is usually necessary for exit and re-entry. In the U.S., that authority is the U.S. Department of State. A passport allows a citizen to travel in a foreign country per visa requirements and guarantees passage for that person while abroad.
Typically, it is a small booklet containing information such as the bearer’s name, place of birth, date of birth, issue and expiration dates, passport number, photo, and signature. There are several types of passports, depending on the status of the bearer in their home country.
When Do You Need a Passport?
You don’t need a passport to travel domestically; a driver’s license or state-issued identification card will suffice. But if you’re traveling internationally, you’ll need a passport to verify your identity and nationality.
The Department of State recommends passport ownership for U.S. citizens with family living, traveling, vacationing, or working abroad. Expect to show your passport at border crossings if road-tripping across U.S. borders or multiple times at airport customs if flying to another country.
The good news? You only need to renew your passport every 10 years unless you were under age 16 when your current passport was issued. In that case, it is valid for only five years.
How Do You Get a Passport?
Schedule an Appointment
If you’re getting your first passport, you can apply at any U.S. Post Office. Because of COVID-19, you’ll need to use the online scheduler or a Post Office lobby self-service kiosk to make an appointment for passport services, to ensure the safety of postal employees and customers.
Know What You’ll Need
There are a handful of items that must be included with your application. One of those is a photo. The color, high-resolution image, matte, or glossy photo should have been taken in the last six months. It must be 2 x 2 inches, and the view of the head must be between 1 to 1.375 inches in height, from the bottom of the chin to the top of the head. The background should be white or a neutral color. Have someone take the photo; selfies are not permitted.
Take off glasses, hats, or head coverings, wear everyday clothing, and be sure your full face is visible when getting your passport photo taken.
Bring the Original and a Photocopy of Your Proof of Identity
Be sure to copy both sides of all documents if they contain information. Photocopies should be on white, 8.5 x 11 paper in black and white. You cannot submit digital evidence like an electronic or mobile birth certificate.
Your birth certificate must be issued by the city, county, or state of birth. It should have your full name, date of birth and place of birth. Your parents’ full names and the signature of the city, county, or state registrar should be present. The certificate should have the date filed with the registrar’s office and the seal of issuing authority.
If you weren't born in the U.S., you can submit a valid but expired U.S. passport or consular report of birth abroad. You can also use a certification of birth, certificate of naturalization, or certificate of citizenship.
Estimate Your Fees
Application fees and execution (acceptance) fees are paid separately. (See more details on fees below.) Be sure to have two checks or money orders available to accompany your passport application package. Fees cannot be paid by debit or credit card.
Renew Your Passport
If you already have a passport, be sure you don’t wait until the last minute to renew it. Most people can renew their passport by mailing it directly to the Department of State’s National Passport Processing Center.
Start your renewal process a year out from the time you will need it, to ensure that you will have everything you need and account for extended processing times.
The old passport should be in your current name, issued within the last 15 years and when you were age 16 or older. It needs to be undamaged and submitted with your renewal application. If your passport doesn’t meet all of the criteria, you must prepare the same application package as a first-time passport seeker.
Given the importance of your documents, use a USPS delivery tracking service. You’ll want to feel confident that your package was received.
How Much Does a Passport Cost?
Application fees and execution (acceptance) fees are paid separately. For those age 16 and older who are applying for the first time, the passport book application fee is $110, while a passport card, if desired, costs $30. Or, you can get both a passport book and a card for $140. The additional execution fee of $35 covers all of those options. For people age 16 and older who are renewing a passport, the same fees apply.
All children under age 16 must apply in person, and fees are as follows: $80 for a passport book, $15 for a passport card, and $95 for a passport book and card. All execution fees are $35.
If you need your passport in a hurry, you can pay more for the privilege; there’s an additional $60 expediting fee. You can find out more about expedited services on the agency website at Get My Passport Fast. If you need delivery in one to two days, there’s a further shipping charge of $17.13.
Fees can be paid by certified, personal, cashier’s, or traveler’s checks or money orders payable to the U.S. Department of State. Some locations may accept cash in exact change.
How Has COVID-19 Affected Passport Applications?
Gone is the big backlog of applications piled up during COVID-19 lockdown in the spring, so you won’t have to wait as long for a passport or renewal now. According to the Department of State, you can apply for routine service and expect to receive your passport in 10 to 12 weeks.
If you’re willing to pay an extra $60, you can cut the wait time to four to six weeks. Those times apply if you’re submitting by mail and in person at acceptance facilities like post offices and libraries.
All of the Department of State’s agencies and centers are again processing passport applications after some shutdowns related to the pandemic. The Department of State is prioritizing in-person appointments at its agencies and centers for customers traveling internationally in the next 72 hours due to emergencies such as serious illness, injury, or death in your immediate family.
Many Department of State passport agencies and centers offer a limited number of appointments for customers who have urgent international travel in the next 72 hours for reasons other than a life-or-death emergency. For the latest information about operations amid COVID-19, check with the Department of State here or at its passport Frequently Asked Questions page.
- A passport is mandatory for most international travel.
- Most new passports and renewals routinely cost up to $175, depending on what formats you want.
- Plan to get a passport months before you need it for a trip.
- A passport is an excellent primary piece of identification.
- You can get your passport in four to six weeks for an extra $60 expediting fee.