Today was a stressful day, and lots of little things hit all at once at the very end to leave me in a seriously grumpy mood. And then I got home, opened my mail box and found a small Priority Mail envelope…with the return address listed as “U.S. Government Official Mail.”
Suddenly, I was a lot happier–because my brand new, lovely passport has arrived! Even more awesome is that it took just two and half weeks, including shipping both ways. That’s super unexpected because I recently read in Condé Nast Traveler that the State Department expects a massive surge in passport applications and renewals in 2016, and to apply early because there will most likely be delays in processing. Welp, that wasn’t the case for me!
I know I already have all my flights and hotels booked, but somehow having my new passport makes my Europe trip seem really real on a whole new level. At first I was annoyed that my old passport expired just a few months ago, but then I remembered my awful photo (more on that later) and got super excited to get a new book with a brand new photo.
Since this was my first time getting a passport without the help of my parents, I had to do a little bit of research to figure it all out. I was pleasantly surprised to find out the process is actually crazy simple–but there are a few important details you should know.
1) Adult passports are valid for 10 years–but there’s a catch.
Your passport may still technically be valid, but many countries can deny you entry if your passport is due to expire within six months of your trip’s departure date–not the date you plan on arriving. Fortunately, you can just visit the government’s U.S. Passports & International Travel website to find out any possible restrictions for the countries you’ll be traveling to. Just select a country from the map, and you’ll get info on passport and visa requirements, necessary vaccinations, travel advisories for that region, and much more.
2) You can renew a passport entirely by mail!
Assuming you meet the State Department’s simple list of qualifications, you can complete the process by mail and skip having to go to a passport processing office. All you need to do is fill out your application, print it out, and drop it into an envelope along with a check for your renewal fee (currently $110), a photo, and your old passport. You can even track your application status online. Since you’re sending very important documents via mail, though, I recommend doing more than just slapping on a few stamps; you’ll definitely want at least a tracking number attached to your envelope. I personally sent my application in via USPS Certified Mail.
3) Your old passport will be returned to you, and you should keep it.
This was a total surprise to me, but it turns out your old, cancelled passport still serves as official proof of your U.S. citizenship, so it will be returned to you after you renew. It’ll most likely be returned to you separately from when you receive your new passport, but either way: you get to keep an awesome memento of your past travels and have a backup form of identification.
4) You can shoot and print your own passport photo at home…
If you want to skip having a photo professionally taken, you can do it all yourself at home and print out on photo paper. Just make sure you pay close attention to the government’s rules for passport photos (it’s not like you can just take a cell phone selfie and mail it in).
5) …but if you want a professional photo, it’s still cheap and easy.
If taking your own photo is too stressful for you (it was for me), then there are lots of other options. Most major chain drugstores and retailers with photo counters (like CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens, Target, and Costco) offer quick and easy passport photos. Costs vary, but you can expect something like $5–$15, depending on where you go and how many photos you purchase. Unfortunately, I live in a very small town without any of these options. But after some Googling, I found a local print shop/office supply store that offers passport photos. So if my teeny tiny mountain town has easy options (well, “option,” singular), then surely yours has, too.
6) But don’t rely on your photo technician to know all the photo rules–especially if you’re on a tight deadline.
Remember that awful photo I mentioned earlier? Well, I had it taken a drugstore photo counter, just over tens years ago when I was preparing to study abroad. I wore a great outfit, and my hair and makeup was perfectly done. And the photo turned out to be gorgeous! But when I stopped by my local passport agency to turn in my application, my photo was immediately denied.
Why? Because I have this random habit of always putting my sunglasses on the top of my head, kind of like a headband, when I’m indoors. Turns out I’d done that in the photo, and it’s absolutely against the rules. Because I was in a rush (that was why I was renewing at an agency, so I could get expedited service), I was forced to take a new photo right then and there, in that dingy passport office. So for the past ten years I’ve been stuck with a photo showing me at my very finest, with greasy and unwashed hair, no makeup, and wearing a tacky secondhand football jersey (I don’t even like football!). I seem to recall my mom being so angry that she demanded a refund from whatever drugstore we’d gone to. And it’s definitely true that the photo technician should have known better–but I no longer take that for granted, and neither should you.
7) Speaking of photos, you actually only need one.
It appears in the past you needed two images, but that’s since changed. All you need is one copy of your photo to staple to your application.
That’s the big stuff, and nothing is too terrifying, right?
It was all just so much easier and quicker than I ever expected. And now that I have my passport in hand, I’m so ready to fantasize actually using it.
Less than five months to go!