It sounds so simple: Submit a two-inch by two-inch color photo shot within the past six months to the U.S. State Department when applying for or renewing a passport. The reality is that there are dozens of ways you can screw it up. “Bad passport photos are the number one reason why some applications are delayed,” a State Department spokesperson told AFAR. “We urge applicants to carefully review photo requirements at travel.state.gov/photos.”
To help you along, that official government site offers instructions, specs, tips, and examples of good and bad photos. There’s even a photo tool you can use to upload and crop an image and get an instant assessment of whether your photo will be accepted or rejected (it also provides a reason). But before travelers snap a passport photo (or wonder what else they can do to speed up the processing time for their application), they need to understand the rules about what to wear in that picture. Review the guidelines below before you waste your time primping.
What should you wear for a passport photo?
The official State website suggests “clothing normally worn on a daily basis.” You can dress up (jacket, tie) or go casual (T-shirt or polo shirt), but there are caveats.
Things you are not allowed to wear
Eyeglasses or shades are not allowed in photos—even if you wear prescription eyeglasses every day, you have to take them off. (If you cannot remove the glasses for medical reasons, you’ll have to provide a signed doctor’s note with your application.)
Other prohibited fashions: tank tops, uniforms, camouflage, masks, earbuds or headphones, and hats or head coverings unless you have a signed document stating that it’s for religious or medical purposes.
The reasoning for all this is that facial features must be fully visible (including moles). That said, permanent facial tattoos are allowed, and jewelry—even facial piercings—can remain in place as long as it doesn’t obscure your face.
What color should you wear for a passport photo?
Dark solid colors are best; they will pop against a white background. You can wear light colors too, and even patterns, but not if they are distracting. If you wear white, your body could disappear into the background and you may be asked to retake the photo.
How to pose and frame the photo
Travelers are instructed to “use a white or off-white background without shadows, texture, or lines.” More importantly: You must sit or stand with shoulders square and with your head centered in the frame. Face the camera directly “with a neutral expression” and open eyes so that the photo can clearly show your eyes.
Common mistakes that disqualify passport photos
These are the nine most common errors, according to U.S. Passport Service Guide, a company with more than than 20 years of experience expediting passport services.
- Face is in the wrong position
- An improper facial expression
- Wearing eyeglasses
- Wearing prohibited attire/clothing
- Poor color balance
- An unacceptable background
- Submitting an edited or retouched photo
- Incorrect photo size
Can I wear makeup and show my tattoos and piercings in my passport photo?
Yes, but only as long as none of these things obscure your face or cast shadows. According to photo-booth app Passport-Photo.Online, lip liner, lip gloss, and bright red or black lipstick should be avoided because they do not represent your natural skin tone.
How about tiny earbuds?
Take the headphones off; they’re not allowed. Nor are any other wireless hands-free devices.
Can I have a beard or mustache? And is it OK if I didn’t have this in my previous passports?
Yes and yes. But remember: This passport photo will represent you for 10 years.
Can you smile in a passport photo?
Smile? Sort of. You can move your face into that position, but you must “make sure both your eyes are open and your mouth is closed in your photo,” according to the government’s website.
What size should the passport photo be?
The instructions are specific and laid out on the State Department’s webpage about uploading a digital photo: “If you are applying in person or by mail, your photo should be 2”x 2” (51 x 51 mm) with the head centered and sized between 1” and 1.4” (25 and 35 mm). If you are renewing online, make sure there is ample space around your head to allow room for automatic cropping by our photo tool. Your digital photo must be in .JPEG file format, at least 600 by 600 pixels, and at least 54 kilobytes in size.” No files over 10 MB will be accepted, nor will any with visible pixels or printer dots. Pics can be printed on glossy or matte paper.
Can you use an iPhone or smartphone to take photos?
If your phone can deliver an image with the right specifications, then yes you can. However, don’t send in a selfie and don’t use any retouching filters from your phone or from social media programs—including the removal of red-eye. If your photo has red-eye, take a new one.
Can I scan an existing photo?
“Do not scan a printed photo or take a photo of an already printed photo,” the site says. What’s more, you cannot submit a damaged photo with holes, creases, or smudges.
Where to get passport photos taken
You can get your passport photo taken at thousands of post offices, as well as FedEx and UPS stores. Some pharmacies and retail stores also take passport photos, including Target, Walmart, CVS, and Walgreens. In addition, you can search through the State Department’s database of “acceptance facilities” near you; these include government offices and libraries that accept passport applications; some of them may also offer photo-taking services.
How to take a baby passport photo
Include only one child per picture, and no, you can’t be in the shot holding up the baby. Instead, the passport department recommends lying the child on their back or in a car seat with a white or off-white blanket behind. As for pacifiers: Lose ’em for the shot. And don’t worry if an infant’s eyes are not fully open; note that all other kids have to keep their eyes open.
Check your shot with the U.S. State Department’s photo tool
The main takeaway of what to wear in a passport photo is that you need to keep your photo simple and clear: It has to show your face clearly for identification purposes after all. And the easiest way to make sure you’re doing it right is to follow the advice on the U.S. State Department’s FAQ and to use the provided photo tool to see examples of each criterion that people get wrong (lighting, attire, background, pose, etc.), so that you don’t make the same mistakes.