Americans planning international travel face processing delays

If you’re planning an international trip, check your passport’s expiration date now. It could take more than four months to get a new one.

The U.S. State Department projects a wait of up to 18 weeks for renewals, and some customers are reporting even longer delays. Those paying an extra $60 for expedited service can still expect to wait up to 12 weeks for their document. Those processing times begin the day the department receives your application, not the day you mail it.

And appointments for last-minute, in-person processing are extremely limited.

The problem is — what else? — COVID-19.

In March 2020, when pandemic restrictions were first imposed, the State Department sent most employees home, and severely scaled back processing applications. When workers began to return to the office, in June 2020, they faced a backlog of applications. Now, a year later, they still haven’t caught up with the demand, a State Department spokesman said. There are also mail delivery delays, according to the State Department website, which notes that the 18-month processing-time estimate includes up to six weeks for mailing.

As more people get vaccinated and begin to plan international trips, the backlog is likely to grow, resulting in even longer processing delays. “Put your forms in as fast as you can,” says Jeremy Scott Foster of TravelFreak.com, a travel advice website. “Unfortunately, there is no workaround. All queues are long.”

The passport delay has caused some travelers to cancel trips. For example, Samantha Meabon, a physician assistant from western Pennsylvania, needed a new passport because of a name change. The process took four months, forcing her to cancel a planned trip to St. Lucia and Martinique in the Caribbean in May. “Although we planned much further ahead of time than we normally would, we ended up having to continue to postpone international travel,” she says.

Another reason to renew early: Some countries won’t admit travelers with passports that expire in less than six months.

How to apply for or renew a passport

Travelers can renew their passport online at travel.state.gov, but first-time applicants and those replacing a lost or stolen passport must apply in person at an acceptance facility. The standard cost in all cases is $110, plus a $35 application fee.

The State Department does offer limited in-person immediate processing at its 26 regional passport agencies for life-or-death situations or for travel within three business days (both require documentation). But travelers must have an appointment for this service, and because staffing has been scaled back in some areas due to COVID-19, they can be difficult to obtain. Travelers are apt to find that the closest agency with an open appointment is hundreds of miles away.

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In the past, travelers could pay private passport courier agencies to handle these rush requests. But since the pandemic hit, many businesses have stopped offering the service because the State Department has sharply reduced the number of last-minute appointments available, says David Alwadish, CEO of New York-based ItsEasy Passport & Visa.

Alwadish’s company is one of many that provide such services; other popular options include RushMyPassport.com and PassportVisasExpress.com. The State Department notes that because these businesses are not government agencies, using them adds to the fees charged by the government. In addition, applicants won’t receive their documents any more quickly than if they applied in person at a passport agency office.

However they apply, Alwadish stresses the importance of triple-checking forms before submitting them, because any mistake or missing information will significantly delay processing. He also suggests applicants pay the extra $30 government fee to get a passport card in addition to a traditional passport booklet. A passport card is a wallet-size document that meets the heightened Real ID identification requirements the TSA will require for air travel beginning in May 2023. “It’s one of the best deals in town. You can’t get a better ID for your wallet,” he says.

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