Travelwise: Tips and tricks for getting your passport

Not long ago, you could drive into Mexico or Canada with just your driver’s license as ID. Now, you need a passport to travel anywhere outside the United States, except for places like Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands that are U.S. possessions.

If you have a passport, make sure it doesn’t expire within six months. If it does, you might not be able to travel on it until it’s renewed, as many countries won’t let you enter. The airline might not even let you board the plane to get there. Adult passports are good for 10 years; for kids under 16, only five years.

Timing: Who has to pay for expedited processing of their passport? Anyone who doesn’t plan far enough ahead to get his passport in time, which, based on my completely unscientific survey of my friends, is darn near everyone.

So take care of it now. The State Department says to allow four to six weeks for passport processing, but I’d double that.

If you need it sooner, be prepared to pay a $60 expediting fee —you’ll still have to wait two to three weeks — plus $14.85 for overnight delivery. That brings your total cost for a first-time passport to $240, compared to $165 if you do it early.

For a shorter time frame, go in person to the nearest federal passport agency and show proof of travel within two weeks — or four weeks if you also need to apply for a visa — then pay $60 and wait up to five days.

Do this: If you have a passport, make sure you have more than six months left. If you don’t, then renew now. And consider some of the new options, including getting a passport card in addition to the traditional book.

More advice:

▪ If you intend to drive or travel by sea only between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean or Bermuda, you don’t need to get a traditional passport book, which costs $110. A passport card allows you to cross these borders. However, you cannot use the card for international air travel. The passport card costs $30 for 10 years, plus a $25 processing fee; $15 for kids, plus the $25 fee. This is a good option for someone who plans a cruise, for example, but otherwise has no interest in international travel.

If you board a cruise ship in the U.S., travel only within the Western Hemisphere and return to the same port on the same ship, you may be able to show a government-issued ID and proof of citizenship, such as a certified birth certificate, in lieu of a passport. Any foreign ports you visit, however, may require you to have a passport to enter. Check with the cruise line.

▪ If you’ll be traveling a lot, ask for the larger 52-page passport book. They don’t charge extra for this if you ask beforehand, but you’ll have to pay later if you need extra pages added.

▪ If you’re handy with your camera or smartphone, you may be able to take your own passport photo and print it yourself. Note that the size, paper weight and background requirements are strict. You can download programs and apps such as or IDPhotoprint, take your photo, then send it to your printer or pay them $6.95 to send it to you. Or use the State Department’s passport photo tool here:

If you don’t want to take your own photos, many readers recommend Costco’s service, which will give you four 2-by-2-inch photos for only $4.99. The Auto Club, Walgreens and CVS are other places to get passport photos, or for convenience’s sake, you may pay to have them taken when you submit your application.

Where to go: You have more options than standing in line at the post office. Nowadays, many libraries and other locations, such as city clerk’s offices, take passport applications. I’ve been told the lines are shorter and the process is easier. Some places require appointments, others are drop-in only.

You will need to apply in person if you’ve never had a passport, if you haven’t had one for at least 15 years, if it’s missing or if you’re under age 18. If you’re just renewing an existing passport, you can do it by mail. Read all the rules at the State Department website ( since this is an abbreviated version.

If you’ve never had a passport, you’ll need:

▪ Proof of U.S. citizenship. You will need a certified copy of your birth certificate — the original birth certificate is not good enough unless it has an embossed seal on it. Order this from a vital records department — plenty early, too. Or you may also have to pay them expedited fees. If you are a naturalized citizen, you can bring your naturalization certificate or certificate of citizenship instead of birth certificate.

▪ Other government ID. That could be a driver’s license or military ID that shows your photo; also photocopies of your documents, copied on one side only.

▪ Your social security number.

▪ One 2-by-2-inch passport photo. It should be a color full-face headshot taken against a white background.

▪ Official passport application. But don’t sign it until you’re facing the agent.

▪ Payment for the application. Cost for adults is $110 for the basic passport book, $140 for the passport book plus a passport card, $30 for just the passport card, plus a $25 one-time execution fee payable separately. Bring exact cash or two checks or money orders — one for the federal application fee, and one for the $25 agency fee. Kids under 16 pay $80 for a passport book, $95 for the passport book-and-card combo or $15 for the passport card only, plus the $25 execution fee.

Why would you want a passport card if you already have a passport book? Passport cards contain special chips that allow border agents to access your photos and other information about you. In some cases, there may be special lanes set up that allow people with passport cards to cross the border more quickly.

If you need to renew your passport:

▪ Cost: The same as a first-time passport — $30, $110 or $140 for adults, except for the $25 execution fee. You can probably renew by mail, unless you’re a child under 16, in which case you must renew in person.

▪ Passport: You must mail back your current passport. They recommend you send all this by traceable delivery service.

▪ One 2-by-2-inch passport photo. A color full-face headshot taken against a white background.

▪ Name changes: If your name has changed, you must submit documentation, such as a marriage certificate, to prove your new name. Read all the rules online.

In 2013, the State Department issued 13.5 million passports and passport cards, so this is big business. And there are plenty of businesses out there that will charge you even more fees to do the work for you.

My recommendation? Get it done early and save yourself the cost and aggravation.