An Introduction to Passports and Visas
What will you need? The legalities, the procedures, the obstacles, the right approach
Some--not all, but some--countries and territories require that you have a passport and/or visa to visit them. Which do, which don't? You can assume, as a rule of thumb, that the requirements become more onerous the farther away you travel from the United States. Let's first consider the "closer-in" places.
To enter Canada, you need nothing more than identification, preferably but not necessarily a "photo I.D." (driver's license, credit card, or similar). The worst that will occur if you haven't these items on your person (which once happened to me) is that you'll be taken briefly to an office, interviewed, and made to sign an affidavit swearing that you are a U.S. resident. The Canadians are visitor-friendly.
To Mexico and the Caribbean, you'll need "proof of citizenship," which can only be (a) a passport, (b) a voter's registration card, or (c) an embossed birth certificate. Don't take these requirements lightly; though my daughter once entered the Island of Curacao with her library card for identification, I have seen persons treated rudely and put through considerable apprehension, who arrived in Bermuda or Mexico without these papers. If you don't have a passport or registration card, be sure to order a copy of your birth certificate from the municipal authorities where you were born, and specify that it must have a raised, official seal on it.
To almost all other places outside the U.S. and its territories, such as the countries of Europe, you'll need a Passport. And to some countries--some--you'll also need a Visa obtained in advance of arrival.
Where and how you obtain a passport depends on whether you are applying for one for the first time, and how much time you have before departing on the trip.
When it's time to apply for or renew a passport, the first stop should be the federal government's own easy-to-read Web page on the subject: travel.state.gov/passport_services.html. There you will find current fees, application locations, downloadable application forms, and answers to most of the passport-related questions that you might have.
Because of light demand, late December through February is the fastest time of year in which to apply for a passport. After March, requests increase and orders can take longer than the official estimate of 25 working days (five weeks) for a regular application. Still, despite a 40% jump in demand over the past decade, improvements within the Passport Agency are shaving waiting time and service is remarkably swift.
If you are seeking a U.S. passport for the very first time (and are over the age of 13), or if your last passport was issued more than ten years ago, then you must apply in person at any of the following offices, many of which require appointments:
There are, of course, different requirements for applicants residing abroad, naturalized citizens, or persons claiming citizenship through birth to U.S. citizens residing abroad at the time.
If you are leaving in a very short time, and need to have a passport issued in less than four weeks, then you'll need to either apply in person at any of the actual U.S. Passport Offices in Boston, Chicago, Honolulu, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Stamford, or Washington, D.C. (their addresses are in the phone books and at the federal Web site listed above) or you can renew by mail for a $60 fee (you must include proof of departure date). If you need to have the passport within 10 days, you'll be charged an additional $60 (plus a possible delivery charge additional), and must submit "proof of departure," i.e., copies of your airline tickets. Alternatively (and more and more people are now doing this), you can use the services of a commercial passport/visa service, especially one located in Washington, D.C. They will charge you more, but they will get the job done.