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Travelers Look to Congress for Help Getting Passports Faster

Despite submitting her passport renewal several months in advance, Katie Sir watched the days tick down before a June trip to Mexico without word from the State Department about when it may arrive. She spent three-plus hours on hold trying to secure an in-person appointment until she heard a click. The call dropped.

“It was just so painfully frustrating,” said Sir, a Shakopee, Minn. resident and Thrifty Traveler reader. “The most maddening and stressful experience ever.”

In a last-ditch effort, she reached out to one of her elected representatives in Congress. Days later, she had her passport in hand … one day before her trip to Mexico.

She's not the only one. As passport processing times drag on amid an unprecedented backlog of applications, American travelers are increasingly turning to their members of Congress for help breaking through the logjam. Several Congressional offices across the country told Thrifty Traveler they've been inundated with requests for passport assistance from their constituents over the last several months. A spokesperson for Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum said her office has handled nearly 200 passport cases compared to just 50 such cases in all of 2022 – a 400% increase and the year isn't over.

Congressional offices can pull some additional levers that their constituents can't: submitting quicker inquiries into the status of applications and securing last-minute appointments at passport agencies much faster than the public can. That's because they have a direct line to both the national passport center as well as local offices. It's not a sure thing, though – especially if you wait too long to reach out before an international trip.

But at a time when many travelers are understandably anxious about getting their passports back in time, enlisting a Congressperson's assistance has emerged as one of the most effective ways to ensure you get a passport before it's too late.

 

How Things Got So Bad

In hindsight, it's clear that the federal government was caught flat-footed by a surge in international travel demand this year. There aren't enough State Department agents available to process all the passport applications they're getting.

The federal government issued a record-breaking 22 million passports in 2022, and they're on track to break that in 2023. That unprecedented demand led to a backlog of nearly 3 million passport applications as of mid-June, the State Department said in a letter to a group of U.S. senators last month.

While passport applications have slowed from a peak earlier this year, they're still receiving 400,000 applications a week, according to a State Department spokesperson. And passport wait times are still up.

The State Department has been increasing guidance for passport processing times since February. It still estimates it will take 10-13 weeks for routine passport processing – up from the six-to-eight-week window from before the pandemic. Even travelers paying an additional $60 for expedited processing can expect a seven- to nine-week wait – and that's before tacking on another two weeks on either end for shipping.

However, federal officials are actively encouraging travelers to apply at least six months before their trip or their current passport's expiration date to guarantee they'll receive it in time.

 

two US passports with boarding passes

 

The federal government was also testing the option to renew passports online earlier this year but ended the latest pilot program in March – around the time processing times increased to their current estimates – and its public launch has been repeatedly delayed. Sen. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) said that online program wound up making the backlog in applications even worse.

“It created even more problems and so that’s put (the State Department) even further behind,” he said.

In May, Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Georgia) – 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.”

A top State Department official wrote last month that the agency is focusing on hiring and retraining staff to handle the surge in demand. 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.

Travelers with urgent international travel can make an in-person appointment to get their passport at one of 26 passport agencies across the country. But travelers are facing hours-long hold times to reach the National Passport Information Center to try to schedule an appointment. And even those who get through are still having difficulty finding available appointments.

The State Department said it tripled the number of phone lines available and has been “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 passport agencies, including offering service on weekends.

Still, travelers awaiting their passports with days to go before an international trip might be better off contacting a member of Congress instead.

Congress to the Rescue?

In Minnesota, Katie Sir submitted her passport for renewal months before her June 17 trip to Mexico, just as the State Department guidance suggested. While the State Department had received her application on April 7, the online status of her application remained “in process” just days before her departure – with no indication of what the hold-up might be or when she would receive her new passport, if at all.

After trying to pay for expedited service and failing to schedule an in-person appointment on her own, she contacted one of her U.S. senators: Sen. Tina Smith, a Minnesota Democrat. She got a response later that day. After filling out forms – including the dates of her upcoming trip – a staff member had helped her schedule an appointment at the Minnesota Passport Agency in downtown Minneapolis on June 16, less than three days later and one day before her trip.

“(Smith's office) was like an angel in my most stressful moment,” Sir said. “They were just sweet and calm and comfortable helping me. It brought me to tears because of how stressed you are and then it’s like, OK someone’s being nice and actually giving me a glimmer of hope.”

Rep. Williams, the Georgia Democrat, told Thrifty Traveler last month that passports are the most frequent request for support her office is seeing right now, and she’s heard the same from other lawmakers. Lankford said his Oklahoma Senate office has seen nearly five times as many requests as average for passport assistance from his constituents.

While travelers may have to sit on hold, congressional offices can work directly with a liaison at each passport agency as well as at the national center. That means they can often get a response much faster – and easier – than their constituents.

 

us passport

 

But congressional offices warn travelers not to wait too long before asking for their assistance in getting a passport turned around. Contacting a member of Congress roughly two weeks – or at least one week – before a scheduled international trip gives them the best chance of tracking down current passport status or snagging limited appointment availability.

For states that don't have a passport agency, congressional staffers have helped find available appointments at locations in other states, although that often means travelers have to pay even more to get their new passport in time.

“You talk about stress and adding a lot of additional costs to your trip,” said Lankford. “Now, the cost of their trip has gone up dramatically because they’ve got to do a trip before their trip and they’re having to schedule it at the last second to be able to do it.”

While Congressional offices can step up when it's urgent, other members of Congress are trying to address the bigger problem: Passports aren't getting approved fast enough. Lankford recently introduced a bill known as the Passport Act, legislation that would add the option of tracking a passport much like any package delivery and an online chat feature to help answer questions, among other provisions. That bill was included in the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the Senate.

Meanwhile, Lankford said he's encouraging his constituents to get their passports before booking any international travel – especially nonrefundable flights, hotels, and experiences.

“As odd as it sounds, we encourage people to get their passports first and book their flights and trips second because it is taking so long,” he said.

The State Department hopes to resume processing passports at pre-pandemic speeds by the end of the year, according to a spokesperson, but there's no word yet on when travelers can expect wait times to decrease.

 

How to Get Passport Help From Your Local Congressional Office

Starting two weeks after applying, you can easily check on the status of your passport online with the State Department. But if your trip is drawing closer and there's still no update, it's worth reaching out to your local U.S. senator or representative for help.

The general recommendation is to contact your local congressional office when your trip is still two weeks out. That gives them enough lead time to make inquiries on your behalf and get your passport application moving more quickly, if possible. If your trip is just days away, the congressional office can make an appointment for you at the nearest passport agency – but only if appointments are available.

You can quickly find who represents you in D.C. via Congress.gov and easily get some preliminary contact information.

Several members of Congress including Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), and even Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer from New York have even added dedicated resources for passport help to their website homepages.

 

Passport services on Sen. Amy Klobuchar's website

 

You'll likely need to fill out some paperwork with your passport application number as well as proof of your imminent travel plans such as flight details and hotel reservations. While she was driving rather than flying to Mexico, Thrifty Traveler reader Katie Sir said printed-out emails from her trip leader were sufficient for Sen. Smith's office. The sooner you can return the paperwork, the sooner staff will be able to assist you.

You only need to reach out to one congressional office: Contacting multiple U.S. senators or representatives won't help you get your passport any faster. In fact, it may only delay your case as duplicate requests can lead to a backlog, according to an email response from Sen. Tina Smith's office.

Still, congressional offices warn there is no guarantee you'll be able to get your passport in time to take your trip, even with their help.

 

Bottom Line

Travelers around the country are turning to their U.S. senators and representatives for help with passports stuck in limbo. And those members of Congress say they're getting more requests for help from constituents than ever.

If you have a pending passport application and an international trip coming up, it's worth reaching out to your local congressional office for help. At the very least, they should be able to get the process moving faster – or get you an in-person appointment so you don't have to cancel your trip.

 

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