A Little Perspective… How Do You Get a Passport?

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passports and travel

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 is a subtle undercurrent in our country teaching us that the U.S. has everything you could possibly want in life. It’s large, we offer a range of cultures, foods, and landscapes—why even leave?

All that is true in many ways. We have an amazingly diverse culture. And there’s just no denying the huge range of natural beauty—our national parks are stunning, and I grew up soaking in the beauty of Florida’s coastal beaches.

But there’s fascinating, great big world out there, too. One we see far too little of since we internally produce the vast majority of our mainstream media, entertainment, and food. But 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.

1. When should you apply for your passport?

Start your application early! The average processing time for a new passport is six weeks. You can expedite that process down to three weeks for a fee, 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 several 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 an extra check or two on you so that you’re not forced to make a second appointment to come back with the right money!

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 it arrives, there is immense pleasure in knowing that you can book a ticket to anywhere in the world. Why not check out my free travel guides to my favorite places in the world (I’ve been to 60+ countries!), or follow me on Instagram for travel inspiration.

Safe and happy travels,

~S

33 thoughts on “A Little Perspective… How Do You Get a Passport?”

  1. I just did a project with my students at the end of this school year. I titled it the ‘Get a Passport Adventure Project’ where the kids had to figure out how to get a passport and then a choose an international destination and plan the trip from beginning to end. I am doing my part to encourage the next generation of Americans to get out, get a passport, and see the world!

  2. And what better way to bring travel to the forefront than for teachers to travel and bring their experience into the classroom. Check out http://www.geeo.org if you’re a teacher interested in traveling over your summer vacation!

    • Thanks for sharing that resource Natasha – it looks like a wonderful source
      of information and well-tailored experiences :)

  3. So many great points here!! I think the greatest benefit of travel is breaking down fear and stereotypes.

    But, I also believe it’s a way to see how other countries do things and learn from them. When we were in NYC last year for TBEX, we had dinner with well-traveled friends who worked for the city of New York. We talked about how the subway looked like it was falling apart and other public transport woes in the city and how many “less developed” countries have more efficient systems. His comment, “Our politicians don’t travel enough to see what the rest of the world is doing and how they are doing it. They still believe our system is “the best” because that’s the only thing the’ve seen.” Now, if we could only get our politicians traveling on something other than official business…

    • Good point Audrey – the metro systems in some more newly developed nations have taken advantages of new technologies and new ideas…and they haven’t yet trickled back to the US. I was actually in a village in China last month that proudly has a photo of Bill Clinton hanging on one of the first walls you see when you enter the stone-walled fishing village. I give Clinton props because it was no easy feat to get there…(no roads, only the river) – now we just need him to spread the word! ;-)

  4. I think it’s great to bring awareness to this in the US, and hopefully this day will make a difference and increase the number of passport holders.

  5. I am lucky to be from the states but unfortunately until you have experience life aboard most dont appreciate most of what we have here. I hear the same things that Jade does about the limited vacation and family but most of us tend to waste a lot of money that could be used towards traveling and other things. My friend from bangladesh was just in awe when he heard that some people in the states have 500+ car payments.

    • It’s about priorities more than anything – if you want to travel, truly want to and make it more important than the latest gadgets, then a lot more people would have the means. Like you, people give me the reasons they can’t – and some people truly aren’t able to with the responsibilities life has dealt them…but I am betting that those who could if they wanted to are a lot more than 40%?! Thanks for sharing your POV on this Kirk!

  6. I often have thought this same thing, but recently a lot of my non-travel friends have said to me that they wish they could travel more- but because of jobs, limited vacation days or family responsiblites, they haven’t traveled as much as they want to. Now I’m not saying that you can’t travel with a job- I have one and plan many trips a year, and I don’t think vacation time can be it either. The desire to travel has to be stronger than your desire to do other things.
    For people in Europe, traveling to other countries is so easy, because they are the size of some of our states! Maybe we should try and get Americans to travel more throughout America first and then they would start to see how traveling can change your life… small steps?!

    • Well said Jade – you have to pioritize travel – and for some people other things and experiences truly are more important, but I think that those who really want it can find a way…and the first step is getting passported! Thanks for weighing in on this, appreciate your POV and comments :-)

  7. I guess we’re lucky in being British – passports are easy to get, we don’t need a visa for many countries outside the UK and European travel is particularly easy. I read an article a few weeks ago that made this point. We can travel from country to country in Europe and tick them off our list. We can travel the same distance in the US – and never leave the US. Most Brits travel abroad because it’s easy and cheap for us to do so – but having said that, a lot of Brits still think Britain is the centre of the world, well-travelled or not!

    Julia

    • You are fantastically lucky to have so much of Europe as your playground..the US is large, and that’s something, but it is still all the American culture, so I’m envious of that. But you’re right, some of what I pointed out is more of a “Western” problem rather than just a US problem :) Thanks for weighing in!

  8. I totally agree that there are great benefits to international travel, and that Americans in particular could certainly use the mind opening that it tends to foster. But I have a few caveats about your post. The first being that you seem to use the word travel almost exclusively to mean international travel.

    Many Americans actually travel a great deal, they just do so domestically rather than internationally. And one of the reasons this tends to be the case is that plane tickets for international destinations are so much more expensive. Sure, it may not seem that way, when you’re looking at prices from New York or Los Angeles. But this country is geographically enormous and it can cost as much, if not more, for us to reach those starting points as it does to cross an ocean.

    I recently booked a flight from Las Vegas to Carson City that cost almost exactly what my flight from New Orleans to Las Vegas cost. With some serious effort, it would probably be possible to get some great bargain flights, but it won’t be anywhere near what you could score on EasyJet or RyanAir. And the last few years have not been the best economic climate to make that leap for most of the people in this country. At least not for vacations. If you’re talking long term travel, with location independent work with associated travel, that’s a whole different ball game – and not one that a majority of Americans are yet involved in, much as some of us would dearly love to be.

    Still none of this negates the points you make. They are true now, have always been true and will still be true in the future. And I think they are some of the most important factors to the well being of our country’s future. Fortunately, technology has made it possible to gain many of these benefits without leaving home.

    Believe me, I don’t think these solutions replace the benefits of actual international travel. But I have been seeing stories about young school children befriending classes in other countries, such as those in Asia, using videoconferencing. I firmly believe that this should be made mandatory in every grade from kindergarten through high school graduation. It is so much more difficult to harbor prejudice against people from other countries when you have grown to know them, and their customs, personally. And this kind of contact makes an excellent substitute for the masses of people for whom travel is either impossible, or not often practical.

    Still, another reason so many Americans don’t travel internationally is that there is so much to see and do in their own country, they don’t feel the need to venture further until they are done seeing what they want to here. Again, this country is huge, and it varies immensely from one area to the next. Also, for a great many people, foreign travel is just completely outside their comfort zone and they just aren’t curious enough about what’s out there to risk their hard earned dollars on the possibility of being uncomfortable during their short vacation times.

    Boy, that’s something I’d love to see changed over here, longer vacations as the norm. But I’m not gonna hold my breath. Fortunately, technology is making it possible for more and more people to work remotely. So I’m sure many more will find their way abroad as soon as they are able.

    There will probably always be those who just do not, for whatever reason, have any interest in international travel…or even much domestic travel. And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. To each his own, after all. But the world has become such a small place now, and we are all getting to know more and more about faraway places, it’s hard to understand how anyone would not be intrigued by at least some of them.

    It’s also easier than ever before to just pick up and go almost anywhere. But not always, not for everyone. For a lot of people in this country, it’s just not possible. Costs, logistics, time…many of us just cannot make it work, much as we’d like to. I think it’s particularly difficult here in the U.S., because of the factors I’ve mentioned above. But it’s not just us. I read blogs all the time from people in other countries who would love to travel more than they do, but they can’t afford it any more than we can in spite of super cheap airfare, more vacation time AND the crucial fact that their countries are all smaller and closer to other countries than ours is.

    So, no, I don’t think xenophobia is the major factor for a vast majority of the people in this country without passports. But there are over 30 million Americans who can’t afford health insurance, many millions of others who are just barely able to make ends meet, how many people are going to spend over $100 on a passport they have no expectation of being able to afford to use?

    Yes, the benefits of international travel are many. But for millions of Americans, for one reason or another – and usually a combination of reasons, it’s an impossible dream. For the time being, anyway.

  9. You make all great points. I especially agree that travel shows that you can live with a lot less and fosters a learning environment that books and news simply cannot capture.

    • Thanks for weighing in Laura – that’s just about my favorite part, learning things that you can’t read in a book and are better than you could have imagined!

  10. I agree 100%! Ha! If it can make you feel better, I feel Italians don’t travel much either, and when they do they keep saying how Italy is better in everything. I hardly find anything more stupid than that. Did this make you feel better? Umm.. maybe not.. it’s just another country that hasn’t it all figured out ;)

    • Maybe not “better,” but it is a little outside of my perceptions, I kinda place this blanket expectation that Europeans are more traveled.

  11. I completely agree with you Shannon, but I’ve had a number of people remind me that some people honestly don’t like to travel. They have no interest it, whether it’s straight to Disneyland or somewhere in Southeast Asia. That said, I do think there are some people who would potentially like to travel, but there are lots of things that keep them from it. You know the common excuses: Time, money, fear of going solo, etc., etc. In any case, I do think that the world would be a more peaceful place if more people traveled. Putting a name to a place is a lot different than aligning personal memories and experiences with a place.

    • joanna – good point. There are people, many people, who simply don’t like or want to travel. I look at the word ‘travel’ etymologically – “travel, from the French, ‘travail’, to work” I believe, have a feeling that the kind of travel (and it’s associated benefits) we’re talking about is the kind that IS work, and not simply a move from a Margarita in our home town bar to another Margarita, ten time zones away. I believe that type of travel that Shannon is talking about – the travel that can affect change in us and in our ways of seeing the world, and relating to it, is travel in the original/etymological sense of the word. I mean, really, who wants ‘to work’ during these two weeks that we in the States are traditionally given as vacation :). Long ago I structured my life so I could travel: with a minimum (or less) of domestic responsibility, conubial responsibility, parental responsibility, etc. And again, I personally am very glad that I did. During my time on the road I have been humbled, afraid, alone, uncomfortable (in many senses), lost, and I personally find great value in each and every one of those things. Some people don’t. Travel is simply the best education I’ve ever had. I plan to continue.

    • I couldn’t agree more Joanna; there are certainly people totally content not to travel – not even within the US, and I have to respect that – the type of travel we do, longer term, less “comfortable,” it’s not for everyone. But there are people out there saying they want to travel but never making the effort – surely more than 40 percent of the US wants to travel…that’s what I’m getting at, so many people want to but just don’t do it..yet! Thanks for weighing in on this, appreciate your perspective! :)

  12. Tough for me to speak on this since I’m Canadian. What I have noticed is the American travellers I meet fall into 2 categories. The ones who feel like pariahs to their friends and family because they love travel and make sacrifices to do it. Or the ones who leave, but expect circumstances to be similar to home as Scott says.

    From my experiences and your strong editorial here, there definitely needs to be a shift in consciousness.

    Something is wrong when you have to attend a class in minimalism. And that’s no joke, I’ve seen a tweet on it.

    Great post! :)

    • Oh yeah, the US needs some help on minimalism…somehow I’m not surprised there’s a class for that. Thanks for weighing in on this Jeannie! :)

  13. I really like your point how travel shows us how much we can live with a LOT less, and happily we do. I know my life has been changed traveling in that area. I hate accumulating “stuff” and do my best to get rid of it on a regular basis (in a recycling sort of way of course!)
    and as for pasport day—-if the U.S gov shuts down as it is threatening to do if the bigwigs can’t agree on a budget, nobody is gettng a passport! that is one of the non-crucial offices that will shut down if so. let’s hope that doesn’t happen!!

    • Thanks Claire – I definitely know what you mean about the “stuff” that just always seems to pile up, most of it we just don’t need and it’s liberating to just chuck it! (and by “chuck it” I also mean recycle :)

  14. I am proud to say I am now ranked among the minority of U.S. Americans ;-) who has a passport. I even got a stamp! Though the BVI for a day is kind of cheating, I suppose

  15. Yeah, Shannon . . . all those things that travel is for you, I’ve felt ’em too. Never get off the soap box! We all (OK, maybe just me and you:) NEED an outlet, if we didn’t have one, we’d be taking Prozac, plunked down on our too-cozy couch, in front of out 62″ flat screen . . . To get up on my soap box for a moment, I agree that as a nation, we travel too little (for my liking). But “travel” is a BIG word, means so many different things to so many different people. So many of US(of A:) expect the places we travel to to have the things we left behind . . . and that’s fine . . . except that there is not learning in that. The kind of travel that I think you’re talking about, and the kind I am, requires, hell!, Demands us to get out of our “comfort zone,” something that as a nation we are woefully unwilling to do, even consider. But things are as they are . . . I for one, and very grateful that I made the decision I did TO travel . . . to get shaken (AND stirred!;) up . . . and am glad you have tasted the joys in that life too . . . OK, the box is yours :) Walk on . . .

    • Thanks for putting together some solid thoughts on this Scott…I get so frustrated sometimes trying to defend the US on the road, which is one of the big reasons I decided to blog about Passport Day – we just need to actively start talking about this – make it a part of the media message and the culture will slowly shift to match!

      Like you, I can’t imagine my life without travel and all that it has shown me, taught me, given me…so much, I just want that for the dreamers in the US who have been told they can’t travel for one reason or another (money, economy, safety, norms).. It’s a battle, but we’ll win! ;-)

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