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Getting a Passport – Your Ticket to Ride

June 5, 2010

At any foreign port of call, including the airport you are departing from, when presenting your documents, there is one more important as your ticket and that is your passport. Obtaining your passport may seem to be elementary for the traveling masses, this is not so for most Americans, at least. There are many figures tossed about as to exactly how many Americans are in possession (you can’t ‘own’ a passport, it’s property of the US State Department), but I’ve seen figures between 20-30%, so we’ll say 25% for good measure; that leaves an amazing 75% of Americans passportless! Meaning most Americans aren’t familiar with the process obtaining a passport! So let’s quickly bring up to speed, the next wave of Americans who want to explore our world and become apart of the globe trotting minority!

Ronald Regan famously said the most terrifying eight words in the English language are “I’m from the government and here to help.” Governments are bureaucracies, massive ones at that. The shear thought of dealing with long sterile corridors and rows identical uninviting wooden doors is not exactly anyone pictures the life of a globetrotter, but this is where it all begins, and it doesn’t have to be so terrifying! A handful of agencies (for a nice fee) have made their niche removing you from the sausage factory floor and taking care of all the dirty work for you…but let me be the first to say, getting a passport is easy! And doing it yourself should be the first introduction to being a self sufficient traveler; your mom isn’t going to be there to give you guidance when you can’t read Arabic, touts are pulling at your sleeves and you have approximately 3 minutes (20 minutes in Egyptian time) to find your train. So this is lesson number one: (These steps are meant for a first time passport applicant over the age of 16)

What you need:
Proof of US citizenship – birth certificate or social security card.
Proof of ID – Driver’s License, birth certificate, social security card, school ID or credit card – bring at least two documents with photos.
Photos – You will need two, see below for a money saving tip.
Fees – set aside approx $100 for these.

Step One: Application
Download and fill out the application form DS-11! Don’t wait in line to simply pick up this form, have the document ready to turn in! But note, a first time applicant must apply in person!

Step Two: Photos
Nearly any drugstore or location with a film processing department will take passport photos for approximately $5-10. But here’s a tip to save you a few bucks in the future, if you are traveling or moving to a country where you will need a visa (especially EU countries) will require you turn in two Biometric photos with you visa application. Since passport photos come in groups of four, kill two birds with one stone, Google a local shop who takes Biometric photos! One set of photos, valid for two applications.

Step 3: Apply
Post Offices are found in nearly every city in America, they are probably the best location to apply. But if you live in a major metropolitan area, you may have a Passport Office or Federal Courthouse you may visit. Often, at Post Offices, passports are processed only at specific times and days of the week, look up in advance when this is and show up about 15 minutes before hand, lines can easily form, particularly in spring in preparation for the summer travel season.

Step 4: Wait
If you’ve waited until the last minute or a spontaneous trip as popped up, for a an additional $60+ fee, you can speed up your application process. But $60 can go a long way in some countries or a less than decent meal at Heathrow, so save that coin! The US State Dept has a website where you can check current processing times, it’s usually in the 4-6 week range. However, for most people I know, it took approximately three weeks for their passport to arrive.

Hopefully this article has taken some of the fear of facing The Man to get a passport. This is after all the most important item for globe trotting freedom. You can have all your bags packed, moneys all prepared, plane and train tickets in hand, but without a valid passport, you’re won’t have a ticket to ride!

As a bonus, here is a bit of information about the difference between a Passport Book and Passport Card to help you decide which is best for you.

Passport Book vs Passport Card
Recently, the US State Department created a smaller, simpler version of a passport in card form. This document is ONLY valid for travel between the US to Canada, Mexico, the Carribean and Bermuda if you arrive by ship or land. It is NOT valid for international travel anywhere! Click here for more information.

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