Why does it take so long to get a passport? The most obvious answer is: bureaucracy and the pandemic-related backlog. But applicants have a role to play, too. Here’s what to know about the length of the passport application process and what you can do about it.
How long does it take to get a U.S. passport right now?
According to the U.S. State Department, current passport processing times are now 10 to 13 weeks (not including the time it takes to mail documents on either end), meaning that wait times have grown even longer than they were in early March, when the listed processing period was 8 to 11 weeks.
Even expedited passports are taking longer. The processing time for expedited passport service is now 7 to 9 weeks, up from the 3 to 5 weeks it had been as recently as January. (This is the rush passport processing service provided by the State Department itself, as opposed to what’s known as “courier” services offered by third-party companies; more on that below.)
That length of time is still better than it was during the height of the pandemic when passport offices were shut down completely and then overwhelmed by the huge backlog when they started to reopen. But the surge since then has been unprecedented. Nearly 22 million passports were processed in 2022, setting a record high, and they are on track to break that record for fiscal year 2023, according to a spokesperson from the State Department.
Why is it taking so long to get a passport right now?
As a State Department spokesperson tells AFAR, passport adjudication has long been a paper-based process that requires applicants to mail in physical applications. Simply put, it’s just a lot of paperwork to get through.
The department has been testing out an online passport renewal pilot program for limited time windows, but that pilot is currently paused until later in 2023. It was hugely popular—the website says it received 500,000 renewals during the few months the service was open, but it also says processing times are the same as if applicants send in their documents by mail.
In the meantime, the State Department says it has increased staffing levels and that hundreds of additional staff are in the hiring pipeline, but it notes that the onboarding process can be a lengthy one.
“We are monitoring record-high demand for passports, and project to see that demand continue to increase through the spring and remain high throughout the summer,” the State Department reports.
What you can do to get your passport as fast as possible
The best thing you can do for yourself is to make sure that any application you submit is complete and correct, whether this is your first passport (which requires an in-person application at a passport acceptance facility) or a renewal (which can be done by mail, and may be possible again later in 2023 via the online pilot program that is currently paused).
There are various forms to fill out and pieces of identification that need to be collected either way, and all the information is spelled out on the State Department’s passport information pages.
According to the State Department, inadequate passport photos are the number one reason applications are delayed. For example, the background must be white or off-white, and applicants must face the camera and remove their glasses (even if they wear them every day). You can take selfies on your own camera (there are numerous apps and websites that can help you take it correctly, like PassportPhotos.com, Passport-photo.online, or PhotoAid), or you can go to an IRL shop that provides the service (like CVS, Walgreens, FedEx/Kinkos, and UPS stores), but remember you will need a hard copy of the two-inch-by-two-inch photo to mail in—so if you’re doing it on your phone you will need to print out the photo. The photo apps mentioned above will send you hard copies or digital images you can print out at home on matte or glossy photo quality paper, and stores with a print center, like Walmart, CVS, and FedEx/Kinkos will print out digitally taken photos for you.
The State Department website is surprisingly helpful and user friendly: It has full instructions about the do’s and don’ts of passport photos, as well as a photo tool to crop an existing photo to the right size.
Passport expediting services that can help you get your passport faster
The State Department offers an expedited passport process for a nonrefundable $60 fee (on top of the application fee and an additional fee for first-timers). Currently, the time frame for this expedited service is 7 to 9 weeks (compared to 10 to 13 for basic service).
There are also many third-party companies—called courier or expeditor services—that are not affiliated with the government but that help travelers navigate the passport application and renewal processes. These companies charge their own fee (on top of the State Department’s standard application fee and expedited process fee) and provide a variety of services. For instance, ItsEasy Passport & Visa will review your application to check for errors that may delay processing, take and print passport photos, give one-on-one guidance to help fill out forms or set up a concierge service to fill out the forms for you, and go to the passport facility to submit the application for you. But even courier services have their limits. The State Department only offers a subset of its appointments to them.
If you need a passport more quickly, say for a life-and-death emergency for travel within 3 business days, or for urgent travel within 14 calendar days, you must call Passport Services at 1-877-487-2778 to make an appointment, although those are limited and not guaranteed.
How to track your passport’s progress
No one likes waiting, but one thing that makes it a little easier is knowing where you stand in the queue. The State Department’s passport progress tracker helps with that. Updates may not be available until two weeks after you submit your application, but once it’s in the system, you can type in your name, date of birth, and the last four digits of your Social Security number to see what stage your application has reached.
But even if you have the right photos, the right forms, and all the apps, the biggest key to beating the stress of the wait queue is to start the process as early as possible—before you’re even thinking of booking international flights and hotels. In fact, go check the expiration date on your passport right now. If it’s less than six months away—or if it’s already expired—add that to your to-do list today.