Need a passport right away? Here's how

Strategies

January 21, 2007|By Michelle Higgins | Michelle Higgins,New York Times News Service

More than a year ago, the federal government decided it was going to require just about everyone entering the United States to present a passport - even U.S. citizens coming back from trips just across the border. Confusion ensued - travel companies and border cities protested, start dates were pushed back, and air and sea requirements were broken up and put on different timetables. On Tuesday, the first of the requirements will be a reality. If you're jetting off to Mexico or the Caribbean, you'll need to pack a passport along with that bathing suit.

In fact, nearly anyone coming into the United States by plane - including Americans who have long returned with just a birth certificate or a driver's license from Canada, Mexico, Panama and most Caribbean islands - will need to present a passport at the airport. Those who don't, the Department of Homeland Security says, will have to go through secondary screenings to verify their citizenship. No one has announced an estimate of how long those screenings will take, but, inevitably, that extra step will cause delays.

It's a big change for Americans who were used to a warmer welcome home - adults could get by with their usual government- issued identification; children needed just birth certificates. A 2005 study commissioned by the Caribbean Hotel Association concluded that an estimated 80 percent of visitors from the United States to Jamaica did not carry passports. Nor did about 30 percent of Americans going to Antigua and Barbuda, 27 percent to Aruba and 15 percent to Curacao.

Nearly three-quarters of all Americans - 73 percent - don't even have passports, the State Department says. Some people are about to be getting them in a hurry. Here is a guide to help you navigate the bureaucracy and get that passport in time.

Your trip is in eight weeks --If all goes well, you'll have time to get your passport in the usual way - processing an application typically takes six to eight weeks. But as the demand for passports grows, wait times could increase. In December, 1 million passport applications were processed, up 57 percent from the number in December 2005. To help handle the work, the government has hired new employees and added new locations where people can file applications, bringing the total to about 9,000. But no one really knows whether this will be enough. To apply for the first time, go in person to one of the many passport acceptance facilities around the country, including many post offices or libraries (you can find one by ZIP code at iafdb.travel.state.gov), with two photographs of yourself; proof of U.S. citizenship, such as a certified birth certificate; and a valid form of photo identification, such as a driver's license. The fee is $97.

If you mostly travel between the United States and Canada, there is a $50 alternative: the Nexus card, issued to pre-screened travelers under a joint program operated by the United States and Canada.

You're leaving in two weeks --You can always pay an extra $60 for expedited service, which typically cuts down waiting time to about two weeks. Be sure to clearly mark "expedited" on the envelope if you're mailing in your application, an option for adults who are simply renewing passports. (Renewals cost $67.) And consider paying for overnight delivery each way.

For faster service, make an appointment to go in person, with proof of travel plans in hand, to one of 14 passport agencies in major cities, including Washington, Philadelphia and New York, by calling 877-487-2778. Your passport could be issued the same day.

You're leaving tomorrow --Your best bet is to use a private rush service. For $130 to $200 on top of passport fees, these companies often can obtain passports in as few as 24 hours. You'll still need appropriate documentation, and you'll have to appear at a post office or other passport acceptance location, but the service will speed up the processing time.

Rush companies have their limits, too. In recent years, some of the regional passport agencies have reduced the number of daily submissions rush companies are allowed, and some companies have had to turn applicants away. But if the first one you call can't get you an appointment, there are many others to choose from. Look for members of the National Association of Passport and Visa Services, or NAPVS, a Maryland-based nonprofit industry group. For a list go to napvs.org.

You're leaving next year --Sure, you have plenty of time, but you might as well apply now. As early as Jan. 1 of next year, U.S. citizens traveling between the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere by land or sea could be required to present valid passports. While recent legislative changes permit a later deadline, the State and Homeland Security departments are working to meet all requirements as soon as possible.

The change is expected to drive an even greater influx of passport applications. By applying now, you'll avoid any potential backlogs.

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