How to Apply for a US Passport

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For many travelers, the ultimate goal is to have a passport that is full of those coveted stamps from around the world. But before you can start booking flights and collecting those symbols of world traveler status, you have to make sure you have a current U.S. passport.

I remember being so excited when I was applying for my passport for the first time. It feels like the “Golden Ticket” from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, giving you an all-access pass to the world.

But there are several things you will need to keep in mind when applying for the first time.

I’ll break it down for you here, giving you all you need to know about applying for your passport in preparation for your big trip.

  • Passport Book vs. Passport Card

The first thing you should do is determine whether you need a Passport Book or a Passport Card. The passport card can be used to enter the United States from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda through land borders or seaports.

The passport card cannot be used for international air travel though. So if there is any chance you will be flying internationally, you have to get the passport book.

If you will only be traveling by land or sea to the above-named countries though, the passport card is a cheaper and less cumbersome alternative for your travels.

You can apply for both at the same time if you want to have both on hand.

Regardless, you will need to fill out Form DS-11the passport application. You can fill it out online and print it out to submit, or print out a blank form and fill it out by hand.

Note that you should not sign your form ahead of time. You must do this in the presence of the person executing your passport application when you are instructed to do so.

  • Where: Passport Agency or Acceptance Facility

If you are applying for your first passport, you must apply in person at a passport agency, an acceptance facility such as a post office, or a U.S. Embassy or Consulate.

  • How Much: Cost for a United States Passport

Passports are not necessarily cheap, but if you see it as an investment in your future, it shouldn’t seem unreasonable to pay the application and execution fees.

The Passport Book alone has a $110 application fee, and the Passport Card alone has a $30 application fee. To get the book and card together, you will need to pay the $140 application fee.

Regardless of which you are applying for, you will need to pay a $25 execution fee as well. If you are applying at the Passport Agency, you can pay both fees in one transaction. However, if you are applying at a post office, you will need to make two separate payments for the application and execution fees, so don’t write your checks ahead of time.

You can only use credit or debit cards for the application fee if you are applying at the Passport Agency. At an acceptance facility, you must pay with either a check or money order made out to the Department of State for the application fee.

  • Your Passport Photo & Identification

When you present your passport to immigration and customs, you want your passport to look like you, and not some past version of you.

1997 passport photo

You can check the full passport photo requirements at the State Department’s website, but the things to keep in mind are that your photo should be representative of what you look like on a daily basis.

That said, I know some people who have some awful passport photos and wish they’d taken just a little bit more time to brush their hair or do their makeup on photo day. After all, you’re going to be handing that baby over to immigration and customs officers all over the world, so you want to look relatively good.

You can take your passport photo yourself, but be sure to study the requirements and use the composition template the government provides to insure that it is acceptable. You may want to use the State Department’s online photo tool as well, found on the photo requirements page.

You can also go to most drugstores and discount stores that have a photo department (like Walgreens, Rite Aid or Walmart) to get your photos taken quickly and cheaply.

They usually charge less than $10 for two passport photos, and the employees are trained in the proper composition of these photos so you know they will be accurate.

In addition to this photo used for your passport, you will need to bring with you multiple forms of identification.

The first document you need to bring is your proof of United States citizenship, such as your birth certificate. This must be the original, certified certificate with an embossed seal on it. It will be returned to you along with your passport when it is issued.

You must also bring a primary form of photo identification, such as your driver’s license or other government-issued identification. Be sure to also bring a photocopy of this identification to be submitted along with your application.

  • Passport Application Timeline

When applying for a passport for the first time, make sure you leave yourself plenty of time for the full process.

Ideally, you should leave a couple months between applying for your passport and your departure date, just to be on the safe side in case of any delays in processing.

Typically, it will take about 4-6 weeks for your passport to be processed and returned to you.

If you need it quicker than that, you can pay $60 extra for expedited service, which will speed up the process to about 2-3 weeks.

You can check the State Department’s website for current passport application processing times, which could be helpful in planning your time frame.

  • Review: Step-by-Step Passport Applications
  1. Gather all the documents you will need, including your certified birth certificate, photo ID (original and a photocopy).
  2. Fill out Form DS-11: Application for a U.S. Passport. You can do this online or by hand.
  3. Get your passport photo taken according to the requirements set by the U.S. Department of State.
  4. Submit your completed form in person.
  5. Submit your evidence of U.S. citizenship.
  6. Present identification to the passport official.
  7. Submit a copy of identification with your application.
  8. Pay the application and execution fees.
  9. Submit your passport photo.
  10. Anywhere from two to 6 weeks later, receive your passport (and citizenship document) in the mail.
  11. Take on the world!

So, where will you go first?

Tell us your stories about the first time you traveled to far-off lands!

Share.

About Author

Lindsay spent the first 18 years of her life in Baltimore, then moved on to North Carolina for college. Spending a semester studying in Perth, Western Australia changed her life and gave her an incurable case of the travel bug. After a year and a half of cubicles and admin work, she decided it was time to go after her dreams. She is now working as a freelance writer and editor in Annapolis, Md. and taking whatever trips she can manage to fulfill that wanderlust and hopefully fuel her soon-to-be travel writing career.

13 Comments

  1. Awesome post Lindsay! I think it’s a major bummer that only a small amount of Americans actually own a passport. Hopefully this will help motivate!

  2. Good, helpful tips! I love the photo of the passports from many different countries too 🙂 I think the first time I used my passport was back in high school when my family went to Jamaica. I’ve been collecting stamps ever since!

  3. Getting a US passport sounds a bit complicated. Partly why many don’t even have one, maybe? Up here (Norway), you just pop down to the nearest police station, fill out a form, they take your picture and the passport is in your mailbox 2 – 3 days later.

  4. The most interesting story I have about my passport is spending 1 hour in Swaziland. I was on business in South Africa and crossed through the border and returned after buying a Swaziland curio. Got the stamp, so it’s legit!

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