Passport processing times are up – way up. And the wait time to get a new passport (or renew an expiring one) isn't going to get better anytime soon.
As international travel demand has soared this year, so has demand for passports. The U.S. State Department is dealing with an unprecedented surge of passport applications and renewals. The federal government issued a record nearly 22 million passports last year – a record – as travel began to return to normal. They're on track to break that record again in 2023, according to a spokesperson.
That's led to a backup in processing applications and longer wait times than normal. In a letter to a group of U.S. senators last month, the State Department said there were nearly 3 million pending passport applications as of mid-June – up 101% from the same time last year.
The U.S. State Department still estimates it will take 10-13 weeks for routine passport processing and seven to nine weeks for expedited processing, which costs an additional $60 – both up substantially from pre-pandemic processing times. Tack on an extra two weeks on each end for mailing times, and travelers are looking at an up to four-month wait to get a passport right now.
But the State Department actually recommends applying even further in advance: at least six months before your trip or your passport's expiration date. And officials advise taking the extended timeline for getting a passport into consideration before booking any international travel in the months ahead.
It won't get better soon, either: A State Department spokesperson said it's too soon to say when wait times will decrease, but it will take until at least the end of 2023 to resume processing passports at pre-pandemic speeds.
Still waiting on your passport? Here's what you can do now!
Still, State Department officials insist that, on average, they are turning around passport applications within the currently advertised processing times – and faster in some cases.
But that's clearly not the case for many travelers. Even those who heeded the federal government's advice to apply for a new passport – or renew an expiring one – well in advance of international travel are facing uncertainty about whether their passport will arrive in time. Travelers are reporting long wait times on the phone, paying additional fees for expedited service or rushed delivery, or even booking additional flights to get to a passport agency with available appointments – if they can find one at all.
Congress to the Rescue?
With passport applications still pending as upcoming trips near, many travelers are increasingly turning to their elected representatives in Washington, D.C. for help. Congressional offices can submit an inquiry into the status of an application to help expedite the renewal process or help obtain an in-person appointment at the nearest passport agency.
And as the backlog worsens, congressional offices across the country are reporting an uptick in requests for help securing passports.
Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Georgia), told Thrifty Traveler passports are the most frequent request for support her office is seeing right now, and she’s heard the same from other lawmakers.
“With all of the requests on support for passports, I started to talk to other members and noticed it was a trend across the country,” she said.
In May, Williams – and a whopping 194 fellow lawmakers, from both sides of the aisle – sent a letter to the State Department about the backlog in passport applications and what measures they’re taking to address it. A group of Republican senators led by Sen. Rick Scott of Florida sent a similar letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month.
The responses are clear: The State Department is not adequately staffed to handle the unprecedented demand for passports.
“We’re still working with the State Department on all of the answers, but what we have heard back from the State Department and from my direct conversation with Secretary Blinken – it’s the demand – supply and demand,” Williams said. “We don’t have enough agents to meet the demand of the current needs that we’re getting from across the country.”
In a July 19 reply to Scott, a top State Department official spelled out the unmet demand: They had almost 3 million pending passport applications as of mid-June. In response, the agency is focusing on hiring and retraining staff to handle the surge.
In addition to authorizing over 40,000 hours of overtime each month, Naz Durakoglu – the State Department’s assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs – explained in the letter that they’ve implemented an “all hands on deck” approach. That includes directing staff from across the department to assist with processing passport applications and even bringing back retired employees to work at passport agencies and satellite offices across the country, he said in the letter.
In-Person Appointments Are Hard to Come By, Too
Travelers who have not received their passport within five days of their departure date need to make an in-person appointment at a passport agency. But that is proving near impossible for many.
For starters, you have to call the National Passport Information Center first at 1-877-487-2778 – you can't just show up at the passport agency. The State Department itself admitted customers are facing extended wait times. Some travelers have reported waiting an hour and a half or longer to talk to a staff member. And for those who get through, they're still having difficulty finding available appointments.
To reduce wait times, the State Department has tripled the number of phone lines available at the National Passport Information Center and are “aggressively” hiring and training additional staff to handle the influx of calls, a spokesperson previously told Thrifty Traveler. They've also increased capacity for in-person appointments at the 26 passport agencies across the country, including offering service on weekends.
Still, the department has acknowledged appointment availability is limited.
Durakoglu said the State Department has asked to realign their funding for the upcoming 2024 budget to allow them to spend the money they collect from passport fees to hire additional staff and prevent similar situations from snowballing in the future.
Tips for Navigating the Passport Backlog
Applying for a new passport (or to renew an expiring one)? There are some things to keep in mind to make sure you don't jeopardize any upcoming trips.
- Avoid booking any international travel if your passport is expiring soon.
- Check the rules for the country (or countries) you’re traveling to. Many countries require a passport to be valid for three to six months beyond travelers' planned date of departure. If your passport will work for your trip, wait to apply to renew it until after you return.
- Apply at least six months before any international travel, if you can.
- Pay the additional $60 for expedited service when you apply – and another $20 for rushed delivery – to ensure you get your passport on time.
- Make sure you send in the appropriate documents and that your passport photo meets the requirements, or the State Department will contact you and your application will take even longer to process.
Unprecedented demand for passports and staffing issues has led to a backup at the State Department in processing applications and renewals. Those problems won't ease anytime soon.
Right now, you could be stuck waiting up to four months to get a new passport, and those wait times aren't expected to decrease until at least the end of 2023. If you're planning any international travel, check your passport before booking.