So, you've done the hard part for your overseas vacation -- picked the destination and the date, coordinated family schedules, found airfares and booked hotels. Now all that's left is the children's passports. It should be straightforward, right?
Well, steel yourself.
Most people who are applying for a child's passport will find -- as I recently did -- that the process is more complicated than ever.
Last year, the government started requiring that children appear in person when they apply for a passport and that the consent of both parents is documented. There are also new costs and rules that may mean you'll have to make several trips to apply.
The State Department's easy-to-navigate travel site, www. travel.state.gov (click on Passports and then on the page titled Minors Under Age 14), will give you a good start, but the bottom line is this: Give yourself plenty of time so you can avoid last-minute panic or expediting fees.
The biggest change in the process took place in February 2004, when the State Department started requiring children to appear in person with their parents to apply. If both parents don't appear, written permission from an absent parent or another documented explanation -- like proof of sole custody of a child, an adoption decree or the death certificate of a deceased parent -- must be supplied.
A sample form letter stating consent is available on the State Department Web site, and it must be notarized. If the form isn't available, a letter with the same information will do.
The change was intended to help prevent child abduction and trafficking, and to help stop fraudulent passport applications, said Angela P. Aggeler, a spokeswoman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs.
Other documents that prove nationality and the child's relationship to parents or guardians are required: either a certified U.S. birth certificate or another proof of citizenship -- a previous U.S. passport, for example, or a citizenship certificate.
The Web site gives a link to a page belonging to the National Center for Health Statistics (www.cdc.gov / nchs / howto / w2w / w2welcom.htm), a state-by-state listing of how to find birth, death, marriage and other records in case a necessary document has been misplaced. Parents must also show proof of identification: driver's license, passport or the like.
Once all that's out of the way, you're ready for the basic two-color photographs -- 2 inches square, full face, front view, no headwear.
For applicants under 16, the basic fee is $40 for a passport that will be valid for five years. There is also an application execution fee of $30, payable to the office where the application is filed.
In March, a new $12 security surcharge was added. For a regular application, the passport will be issued in six weeks; for expedited service, with delivery in about two weeks, you pay an extra $60 a passport.
When scheduling your trip to apply for a passport, you can use the site's link to a page (www.iafdb.travel.state.gov) that lets you find by ZIP code which of the 6,000 "passport acceptance facilities" are near you, and their days and hours of operation.
(If you need the passport in less than two weeks, you can make an appointment with one of the 13 official passport agencies listed on the Web site.)
The application is available at the office you use or by download from the Web site; if you fill it out beforehand, don't sign it until you actually apply.
My family's experience might have been rockier than many, but it gives an indication of the potential problems. I began the passport-application process for my two daughters more than three months in advance of a planned trip to Russia.
The first post office we chose off the Web site closed earlier than the site indicated. A week later, we all went to the post office with my divorce papers and other pertinent documents, but it turned out that I had a full Iowa birth certificate for one of my girls and only a short-form certificate for the other, and the long-form one is required. That meant another delay: I had to send back to Iowa for the right birth certificate.
A holiday intervened, and by the time the right birth certificate was in my hands and we finally made the application, we were late enough that we needed to pay the expediting fee ($60 per child) to get the passports, which we needed to obtain visas to Russia (a process that can take several weeks).
The rules for children between 14 and 17 are slightly different: If the child is 16 or older, for example, the fee is $55 instead of $40, and the passport will be valid for 10 years.
The next big thing for U.S. passports will affect all passport holders: The introduction of the high-tech biometric passport. The government plans to issue redesigned new and replacement passports, each with a computer chip holding all the information on the photo page, including a digital image of the bearer's face that can be "read" only by authorized electronic scanners. The State Department plans to begin issuing the new passports by the end of summer.
As with the stricter rules for children's passports, the goal is security, Aggeler said. "Is it a flawless system?" she asked. "No, but we keep trying to make it flawless."