Last Updated on December 18, 2020
The U.S. offers a wide range of diverse cultures, foods, and landscapes. There’s just no denying our country’s natural beauty—our national parks are stunning, and I grew up soaking in the beauty of Florida’s coastal beaches.
But there’s a fascinating world outside our borders, too. One we see far too little of since we internally produce the vast majority of our mainstream media, entertainment, and food. Only once I left the United States did I realized that I had grown up in a culture that values xenophobia. That’s harsh but true. There’s a subtle undercurrent in our country teaching us that the U.S. has everything you could possibly want in life. But I contend that the U.S. would be a better place if we, as a nation, traveled more.
Thankfully, 42 percent of Americans are passported—while that’s an astoundingly low percent for a Western country, the number has increased every year for decades. That’s because getting your first passport buys you a lot.
Why I Love Having My Passport
- Travel promotes understanding and destroys prejudice.
- Travel humbles you. We are a wealthy country and have freedoms and opportunities others afforded to us by merely being born US citizens.
- Travel fosters learning and fuels curiosity … about us, the world, humanity.
- Travel shows you that you can live with a lot less—and happily, too.
- Travel generates awareness and that generates change. Once you see, then you’re empowered to act.
Travel has taught me that the United States doesn’t have it all figured out. Other nations have better health care systems, cleaner food, more racial harmony. This is one key reason I moved to Barcelona, Spain after a decade of round the world travel—my American Dream feels more attainable here. The U.S. is still figuring out some key issues, and as our society travels more, citizens like me see these perspectives and consider what elements might make our nation stronger.
For all our differences, it’s our similarities often stand out the most. Travel taught me that lesson. The name on the front of our passports doesn’t even come into play in the daily human experiences. We all have babies, experience death, share meals with our family, and laugh with our friends. People are people. Travel has taught me to keep perspective. Travel beat into me that classic line of simple advice: Don’t the small stuff. Even more, it taught me to be grateful for what I have. Some people have more than me, many others have less. Money doesn’t equal happiness. It’s clichéd, but true. I won’t idealize the poor by saying they are happy, but instead note that those who have chosen a path of less focus on consumerism have always struck me as happier, and it took many years on the road to discover that.
Why You Should Apply for Your Passport
Owning a passport is more than a lark, it’s an American right—a right that painfully few Americans are exercising. Even if you don’t have international travels planned, owning a passport opens up the possibility of travel. Throughout my childhood, I dreamed of what it would be like to travel the world. Even before I had the means, my passport represented that dream. It reminded me that I had the extreme privilege of owning a powerful passport—now all I needed was the time and money.
And I don’t say that lightly either. I know that travel can be expensive, but I also know that if it’s a priority in your life than there is a good chance that you can save for travel. Owning your passport is the first, very important step toward leaving the country and experiencing another culture.
How to Apply for a Passport
Applying for your first passport is a big step, congrats on making that decision! It’s not too tricky, but there are a few things you’ll need in place before you can apply. Plus, after years of renewals and going through many visa applications on the road, I’ll suggest a few tips where you can save costs, as well as areas that sometimes cause delays if you’re not prepared for every step of the passport application process.
UPDATE: COVID-19 Impact on Applying for a Passport
Due to the pandemic, the U.S. government has issued detailed updates about what you can expect when applying for a new passport. The TL;DR of the situation is that it will take longer than normal (10-12 weeks for regular service and 4-6 weeks for expedited), and you should research passport acceptance facilities near you before assuming you can rock up to any location that used to process passports. If you’re just renewing your passport, you’re in luck! It’s all online. But if it’s your first passport, if you’re a minor, or if your old passport was lost/stolen then expect to apply in person. In light of COVID though, really be thorough in your preparation paperwork so you have your forms filled out and accurate for your appointment, with an acceptable photo ready for submission. Other than that, here’s exactly how to apply for a passport:
1. When should you apply for your passport?
Start your application early! The average processing time for a new passport is six weeks (double that during the pandemic). You can expedite that process down to three weeks for a fee (again, double that to 4-6 weeks), or for an astronomical fee (and a big hassle), you can receive your passport in eight days. Trust me, you don’t want your first trip to start with the stress of hoping your passport arrives in time—apply at least four months before your planned trip.
And even more—start the process of gathering your documents at least a month before you need a passport appointment. If you can’t find your birth certificate for face any other small issues, you might be looking at waiting weeks just for your state to mail you the documents you need to apply.
2. What documents do you need to get a passport?
You’ll need to prove your identity beyond a shadow of a doubt—and no, your driver’s license alone will not suffice. You must show each of these things.
- Proof of Citizenship. You can use a previously issued passport for this. Or, if you don’t have one, you will need one of these: a certified, government-issued birth certificate; a consular report of birth abroad; a naturalization certificate; a certificate of citizenship.
- Proof of Identity. This includes a passport; naturalization certificate; driver’s license; military ID card; or other current government-issued ID.
If you don’t have both of those types of ID, then the government has listed other, secondary ways you can prove your identity. And always check this government page to ensure you have all the most updated forms and proofs of identity.
If you are applying to get a passport for a minor, there are other forms you may need to submit. A minor child must have the consent of both parents to receive a passport. And if one parent is absent or deceased, there are other forms you will need to print and submit to prove that you have the right to receive a passport for that minor child. I have done this process for each of my three nieces and nephews, and it pays to start gathering documents weeks ahead of your passport appointment—especially if both parents on the birth certificate will not be at the appointment.
Tip: Photocopy of both of your forms of identification—you must mail these alongside your application. If you don’t bring copies, the office will charge you to for photocopies.
3. Where to get passport photos?
You’re going to need a good passport photo. Your local CVS or drug store will take a passport photo for you. Costco and Sam’s Club also offer the service.
There are very specific requirements about lighting, sizing, and facial expressions. Also, this will be your photo for 10 years—you will likely want to ensure you look nice for your passport photo appointment. This photo must be a single 2×2-inch photo with a white background, you need a neutral expression on your face, and your face must take up the majority of the photo frame.
Tip: Make your own passport photo! If you have time and you’re on a tight budget, then take and print your own passport photo for less than a dollar. Stand against a well-lit white wall. Ensure there are no shadows (you might need to bring extra lamps into the room), and then stand against the wall while someone snaps your photo. It’s easy to Google passport photo examples—duplicate that distance/framing/facial expression. Then use an editing program to cut your face and shoulders into the 2×2-inch square. Make a row of three by two of those squares using a free program online and then bam! You have a 4×6 photo that you can easily print at CVS Photo. Then you’ll have six tiny photos of yourself that you can use if you’re traveling somewhere that also requires photos for visas (particularly helpful if you’re planning a round the world trip!)
4. Where to get passport forms?
You will need to submit the U.S. State Department’s Form DS-11. You can either print out a blank copy and fill it in, or the government has a passport registration form. You can fill in all of your details online and then print the form. All of this information must be legible and precisely accurate or they cannot and will not accept your application at your appointment.
If you don’t have a printer, then visit your local post office or nearest official location (use this tool to find one near you) and you can pick up a form for free.
5. Where to apply for your passport?
Make an appointment to submit your forms. You must apply for your first U.S. passport in-person, so either make an appointment at your local post office, or visit your county offices. This government page has a handy tool that helps you find a place to get your passport. Use that tool to find the nearest application office—if you picked up your form in person you can likely also apply there.
Tip: Bring your checkbook so that you can pay for it. In addition to the current fees (find out how a passport costs here), you may find that you forgot to copy something important. The offices will take checks, so bring an extra check or two with you so that you’re not forced to make a second appointment to come back with the right money! (This happened when I passported my niece last year.)
6. How long does it take to get it your passport?
Watch the mail because Your passport will arrive within about four to six weeks, depending on how busy it is at your regional office. The months leading up to summer are often much busier at the passport offices, so not only will you have a harder time finding appointments, but it definitely might take the full six weeks.
Tip: Keep checking your mail. Your important personal documents, like your birth certificate, will arrive in a separate envelope from your new passport.
It sounds like a lot of work, but once your passport arrives, there is immense pleasure in knowing that you can book a ticket to anywhere in the world.
Since you’re likely heading on a journey soon, here are a few other key resources to help you on your journey:
- Buy a passport holder. Particularly important if you’re a new traveler (which means you haven’t yet systemized your travel days). Simple RFID blocking travel wallets are a lifesaver—this is what I now use after a decade on the road so I can keep my travel days streamlined, and I think it’s a baseline that will serve most solo or couple travelers. I’ve also used an undercover, stashable wallet in the past—this is great for those going on a group tour, traveling Europe, or backpacking because it can stash all of your tickets, various currencies, and more. If you’re a family, this larger passport wallet will change your life—I traveled with friends in summer 2019 who have three kids and the mom waxed poetic about this wallet.
- Use my Free Travel Guides. These online guides feature my favorite places in the world (I’ve been to 60+ countries!) and offer tips on the best experiences in each place, where to stay, and tasty eats, too.
- Plan World Travel. After 12+ years of traveling the world, I share all of the tips I’ve learned about booking great airfare deals, finding the best accommodation in each new place, responsible travel, and so much more.
- Buy Travel Insurance. I’ve used World Nomads for more than a decade, and I think every traveler should buy travel insurance, as the risk is just too high without it.
Safe and happy travels,