Last spring, Tera Wages was looking forward to a mid-July trip to Casa Chameleon Hotel in Costa Rica when a friend happened to mention the U.S. passport renewal process, which has been suffering delays during the pandemic. Wages panicked, realizing she hadn’t checked the expiration date on her own passport. “You could have sucked the air out of the room in that moment,” she says.
Sure enough, both Wages’s and her partner’s passports had expired during the pandemic. Wages immediately sent them off to USPS, four weeks before they were set to depart—exactly the time the U.S. Department of State said passport renewals were estimated to take back in the spring. But mere days prior to scheduled travel, the Alabama-based couple was still passport-less, despite herculean efforts to secure an in-person agency appointment through a case worker assigned to them through Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks’s office.
“Ultimately we realized our case worker was not able to make anything happen,” Wages says. “We’d spent hours refreshing the page to get appointments, and nothing was becoming available. We decided there was no way [we could still go on the trip].”
Despite travel resuming on a wide scale, situations like Wages’s are still common right now, with many Americans being forced to cancel international trips due to expired passports, and a long and frustrating renewal process. Though travel agents have always recommended giving the government a few months to process a U.S. passport renewal, the timeline became much more complicated over the last year. In July, processing times were up to three times longer for both routine and expedited passport renewal services compared to before the pandemic. The good news, however: After months of delayed service, processing times are finally getting shorter.
Due to a huge influx of requests as the world reopens, travelers who need to renew (either in person or via mail) will have to allow extra time to do so. The best advice? Check your passport expiration date now—whether you have a trip planned or are just dreaming of one—and don’t forget many international destinations require your passport to be valid for six months from your planned return date to the United States.
We tapped travel experts to answer common questions about U.S. passport renewal right now. Read on for the advice, including what to do if you have an upcoming trip.
How long are passport renewals taking right now?
The latest estimate on passport processing times, as of October 29, is 8 to 11 weeks for a mailed-in passport, according to the U.S. Department of State’s passport renewal website. Approximately 1.3 million passport applications are currently pending, down from 2 million in late August.
“We are hearing that with summer travel over, passport renewals are not taking as long as 18 weeks, as was the case back in July,” says John Spence, USA president for luxury tour operator Scott Dunn. “Nevertheless, with the recent resurgence in international travel and borders opening across the globe, we still suggest don’t wait, even if you’re planning to travel next year,” he adds.
Although spring and summer are typically peak seasons for passport renewals, a State Department official says they’re seeing “unusual volumes of applications” for this time of year, due to pent-up demand for travel as COVID restrictions ease.
The same official asserts that staff is working “extensive overtime” at all passport locations, hiring additional contractors, and temporarily assigning additional staff to passport adjudication to help reduce processing times. Staff capacity at 29 domestic agencies and centers returned to pre-pandemic levels in late August, enabling faster processing.
It’s important to note the Department is no longer using door-to-door timeframes to describe routine or expedited service. Processing times begin the day your passport is received at a passport agency or center, not the day you apply for a passport, according to the official. Therefore, processing times do not take mailing times to and from passport offices into account. While USPS states that standard delivery for Priority Mail is one to three business days, it’s not guaranteed. Reasonably, it makes sense to factor in at least one more week to passport processing times when considering door-to-door timeframe for passport renewal.
What about the government’s expedited service?
Expedited passport processing ($60) is currently taking around five to seven weeks. While that’s not exactly fast, “[expediting] may well be worth [the fee] if you have impending travel plans,” says Spence.
There’s one workaround, however. Any travelers who can provide proof of necessary urgent travel, such as life-or-death emergencies, or can show that their trip is within 72 hours, are given the chance to score an in-person appointment to renew their passport quickly. “However, we wouldn’t count on this unless it’s a last resort,” Spence says.
If you are able to get an in-person appointment at one of the government’s 29 passport agencies or centers in the country, a passport agent will review your application and potentially issue a passport on the spot, if you’re eligible for one. Or, the agent may ask you to return at a specific time to receive it, depending on the agency, their workload, and the date of anticipated travel. According to an official, the State Department is working to increase the number of available appointments at public passport agencies and centers.
The only way to schedule an appointment currently is to call the National Passport Information Center. This summer, appointments at these centers were so scarce, and in such high demand, that some who were able to secure one began selling them illegally to other travelers. Wages says that in researching how to get appointments online in their attempt to continue with their Costa Rica trip, they discovered users on Reddit who would post appointments for sale—starting around $200—as soon as someone canceled or more spots opened up.
In July, the Department of State condemned this behavior and temporarily disabled the online appointment booking system for urgent travel service. No timeframe was specified as to when online booking for appointments will open back up, and as of November 1, the system was still unavailable. In the meantime, you must call to make an appointment (though Traveler editors have been unable to get through in recent days, with the call dropping off after the initial menu).
Note that the above measure only applies to the 29 passport agencies in the country, and not the many passport acceptance centers—found in libraries, post offices, and local government offices—which continue to take online appointments. Find a passport acceptance center near you here.
What to do if you need a passport, fast
If not being able to renew your passport could mean cancellation of a major trip, it makes sense you might consider extreme measures to score an appointment—even if that means paying for one. However, Spence says he’d never recommend illegally purchasing an appointment. “Although it’s tedious, we always advise going through the official application and renewal process through your local passport agency,” he says.
One creative way to potentially move quickly through the official channels: Contact your local representative, including the office of your U.S. senator or congressional representative, and ask for help getting an appointment, says Bahar Schmidt, founder and CEO of high-end travel resale marketplace Eluxit. She says that a client set to travel to Mexico realized last minute that their passport was expired. With travel in two days and no luck booking an appointment with the Department of State, they contacted their government representative and were able to get assistance—and continue with their planned trip, fresh passport in hand.
“I would probably recommend that route,” Schmidt says. “Reaching out to anyone who may [be able to] help in a crisis is worth a try.” Every district is different, so you’ll need to do some research to find the right person to call; more than likely, though, it will be your U.S. congressional representative who might be able to help in the eleventh hour. That said, it’s not a guarantee that lawmakers in either the House or Senate will be able to assist in a timely manner, as Wages experienced with her caseworker.
Of course, if you’re in panic mode and willing to throw money at the problem, there are always third-party passport services you can pay to handle your renewal. Earlier this year, many passport application and renewal services—some of which traditionally advertise 24-hour turnarounds—posted notices to customers that they cannot guarantee rapid renewals, though some are advertising wait times shorter than the government’s. RushMyPassport is a service Traveler staffers have used for a six-week return time, for $189 (plus U.S. Department of State fees). Another, GenVisa, is offering “super express” passport renewals within five to seven business days for $400, in which a representative attends your passport appointment for you, pending availability. When Traveler called GenVisa, a spokesperson for the company said appointments are still hard to come by, and that people are still feeling the consequences of U.S. passport agencies being closed nearly a year and a half, on top of increasing passport renewal requests as more Americans begin traveling again.
What should I expect if I renew by mail?
Mailing your passport without knowing when it may be returned is daunting. But within two weeks of mailing it, you should be able to track your application status through this page. Enter your last name, date of birth, last four digits of your social security number, and a security code.
Always take a photo of your passport before sending it in for renewal, Spence says. “If your passport happens to get lost in the mail, you at least have a copy to refer to, and this will save you additional time and effort to renew it.”
If the worst happens and you can’t get a passport in time, you can always book a domestic trip instead. Wages, who is still passport-less, ended up booking a weekend getaway to The Goodtime Hotel in Miami Beach with her husband. Though she says the experience was a “10 out of 10,” it was still a consolation to the international vacation they didn’t get to take. Still, Wages acknowledges it could have been worse. “We’re fortunate our [travel] was not an emergency and that we have the privilege to be able to reschedule and plan again,” she says. “But for people who don’t have that ability, it would be really tough.”