Bay Area residents eager to once again travel abroad now that COVID-19 vaccinations are becoming more prevalent could be stymied by delays in processing passport applications.
All routine applications for new or renewed passports, which depending on the time of year can take as little as 6 to 8 weeks to process, are now expected to take 18 weeks, according to the U.S. State Department. Applicants can pay an extra $60 to expedite their application, but even that is taking longer than usual, from as little as 2 to 3 weeks in previous years to as many as 12 weeks now.
A spokesperson with the State Department said the backlog is caused in part by delays at the U.S. Postal Service and with the service provider in charge of processing payments and entering applications into the department’s system.
Here are some tips for anyone planning a trip abroad who may need a new passport or to renew an expired one:
1. Apply early
Take into account the 18-week turnaround time, which includes 12 weeks for processing time and 6 weeks for mailing to and from the State Department. “Really plan ahead and make sure to give yourself ample time,” said Swapanthi Mandalika-Reeves, the constituent services director at the office of U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Santa Clara. “Try to give yourself more weeks.” The department recommends applying at least six months ahead of time.
2. Pay to expedite the process
For an extra $60 applicants can shave 6 weeks off their application period. The expedited process doesn’t begin until the payment is processed so applicants should consider expediting as soon as possible. They can also pay $17.56 for faster shipping when the passport is mailed to the applicant.
3. Call your local member of Congress or senator
The offices of federal representatives can try to help applicants through specific liaisons at the State Department. However, those offices are limited in what they can do by the department’s own processing timelines and protocols. “We can’t break those protocols, but we’ll do our best, especially in emergency scenarios,” Mandalika-Reeves said.
4. If your trip is an emergency, make an in-person appointment within 72 hours of the trip
Individuals experiencing a life-or-death need to travel — defined by the State Department as a situation where an immediate family member has died or is dying — can make an appointment within 72 hours of their trip if they have documentation such as a death certificate or official letter from a hospital. Call 1-877-487-2778 Monday through Friday between 5 a.m. PT and 2 p.m. PT to make an appointment or call 202-647-4000 after 2 p.m. PT or on weekends and federal holidays.
5. Make a non-emergency in-person appointment within 72 hours of the trip
The State Department offers “extremely limited” appointments for non-emergency trips. Applicants need to bring proof of international travel such as a flight itinerary or hotel reservation. The closest passport agency is in San Francisco, and Facebook groups such as US Passport and Visa Services offer tips such as checking for openings at 5 a.m. — some said too many people were trying at midnight and crashing the appointment portal.
6. If you’re already abroad you may not need to renew your passport
The State Department recently announced that U.S. citizens already abroad whose passports expired on or after Jan 1, 2020, may be able to fly back to the U.S. without renewing their passport through Dec. 31. The decision was made, “To alleviate travel difficulties and unprecedented appointment backlogs created by the global COVID-19 pandemic,” the department said in a news release.