These directions are for individuals getting a first-time passport. For renewing your passport visit the passport renewal how-to. For other situations, follow instructions on the State Department website (don’t worry, they are clear).
1. Determine when you need your passport.
Do not procrastinate! It’s safe to assume the full process takes 4-6 weeks and the expedited process 2-3 weeks. However, there are no guarantees and I recommend tackling this 3-4 months before a trip to save yourself stress.
2. Visit the. US State Department website to download and print the correct form.
For your first passport, you will need a completed DS-11 form. Use common sense and print it on clean white paper at full size (8.5” x 11”).
3. Gather your proof of citizenship and the supporting documents needed.
For most natural-born US citizens, this is simply a copy of your birth certificate and Driver’s License (both sides). If this is not your situation, you may submit items such as the following containing your signature AND a photograph: previous U.S. passport book; previous or current U.S. passport card; Certificate of Naturalization; Certificate of Citizenship; military identification; or federal, state, or municipal government employee identification card. The DS-11 form contains further instructions should you have none of these forms of identification.
For some this step can be tricky as birth certificates are so seldom used. Please allow yourself some time to track down a birth certificate. As an adult, I don’t even have a copy of mine at my own home and had to ask my parents for their copy!
4. Get a quality passport photo taken.
Pictures must be 2″ x 2″ show your full face with a neutral expression (no smiling) and eyes open and be taken against a white background. The picture must be taken within six months of submitting your application. Specific US Passport guidelines are here. Depending on what countries you will be visiting you may want to go further than the US guidelines and keep long hair tucked BEHIND your ears (this is required for some countries).
This is something I STRONGLY recommend getting done professionally. It’s a fast process and they should be inexpensive – I paid about $8 for my pictures- get multiples! Department stores (Target in the Midwest), drugstores (Walgreens, CVS), government ID centers, UPS and any businesses that develop film will likely have passport picture services with same-day turn around and can ensure the technical aspects (white background, head placement) are accurate.
5. Budget for your passport fee.
Depending on where you apply and if you chose to expedite the passport, the total fee will vary. At minimum you will pay a application fee of $110 AND an acceptance fee of $35 for a passport using a DS-11 form. To get an idea of how you can pay (check, credit card, money order, etc.) check here.
I think of the passport fee as an investment; paying now to be able to receive the priceless experiences that come from seeing the world, living out your dream adventure and opening yourself up to new people, cultures, places and nature.
6. Visit a Passport Acceptance Facility and submit materials.
For a first time passport you must submit all materials and application in person at a passport acceptance facility. Find a facility near you and plan ahead as you may need to schedule an appointment.
7. Patiently wait for your passport.
Your passport will be mailed to you once completed. I received my passport three weeks but it may take longer depending on your location and volume of applications. If you are anxious or just want to check your application status, call the National Passport Information at 1-877-487-2778 or 1-888-874-7793 7:00 am to 10:00 pm EST (Monday through Friday).
8. Check the passport for typos and keep it in a safe place until your international adventure.
Once the passport arrives, take a high quality photo or scan of pages two and three (the pages with your picture and signature) and store it on a secure cloud platform or on a USB with other travel media you might be taking with you. This will come in handy if the passport is lost while traveling or you need to submit a copy for any reason. A US passport is valid for 10 years but you might wear it out or fill the pages before the expiration date comes.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
― Lao Tzu