Read This Before You Renew Your Passport

USA passport in handpassport in hand
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Check your expiration date - right now! - and follow these steps to make sure your next flight gets off the ground.

When's the last time you checked the expiration date on your passport? If it's expired, you'll have to get it renewed before you can take your next international trip.

You might even have to renew your passport before your next flight within the U.S., as some states are no longer accepting driver’s licenses as ID for flying domestically. The change took effect earlier this year when the Department of Homeland Security began implementing REAL ID Act, which will eventually require all states and U.S. territories to adhere to stricter security measures for issuing state licenses. (Congress passed the law in 2005 in an effort to strengthen national security.)

That may explain why U.S. passport demand is at an all-time high, with 21,378,994 passports issued last year, up from 5,547,693 in 1996, according to the U.S. Department of State.

Despite all the commotion, many U.S. travelers forget to renew their passports, says Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief at Travel Weekly, a newspaper that covers the travel industry (travelweekly.com). “Like a tetanus shot, a passport lasts 10 years, but there’s no doctor to remind you it’s time to renew,” Weissmann says. (Note: passports for children under 16 are only valid for 5 years.)

Here’s everything you need to know about obtaining and renewing a passport.

HOW TO GET A U.S. PASSPORT

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If you’ve never traveled abroad, there’s a good chance you don’t even have a U.S. passport. The good news is obtaining one is fairly easy.

Your first step is to obtain the right passport application forms. You can pick up an application from any U.S. post office, or download the passport application forms online (travel.state.gov) and print them out at home.

If you’re printing the forms yourself, the federal government’s U.S. Passport Service Guide says the materials “must be printed in black ink on white paper. The paper must be 8 1/2 inches by 11 inches, with no holes or perforations, at least medium (20 lb.) weight, and with a matte surface. Thermal paper, dye-sublimation paper, special inkjet paper, and other shiny papers are not acceptable.” Forms completed by hand should be filled in using black ink and submitted using only one-sided pages.

You’ll also have to provide proof of your American citizenship, in the form of one of these documents:

  • A certified U.S. birth certificate issued by the city, county or state. (Call the government of the state in which you were born to get an official version with a notary's seal.)
  • Records of birth abroad if you were born outside the U.S.
  • Naturalization certificate
  • Certificate of citizenship

In addition, you must prove your identity by providing any one of the following:

  • Naturalization certificate
  • Certificate of citizenship
  • A current, valid driver's license, government ID, or Military ID

Next, you have to submit a photo with your application. You can get a U.S. passport photo taken at the post office, or snap and print your own photo. Just make sure you’re wearing your normal, everyday clothes (no uniforms) and nothing on your head. You cannot wear glasses, and you must look straight ahead without smiling. The photo must be 2x2 inches.

Passport application and execution fees change periodically. At present (May 2018), passports for U.S. adults age 16 and older cost $145. For an extra $60, plus delivery fees, you can get a “rush” passport delivered within 2 to 3 weeks. (Routine processing takes 4 to 6 weeks.) If you’re applying by mail, you must provide a check or money order—credit and debit cards are not accepted.

HOW TO RENEW A U.S. PASSPORT

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You can renew your passport by mail, using form DS-82 and submitting a new 2x2 inch photograph, if your most recent passport meets these five requirements:

  • Is submitted with your application
  • Is undamaged (other than normal "wear and tear")
  • Was issued when you were age 16 or older
  • Was issued within the last 15 years
  • Was issued in your current name (or you can document your name change with an original or certified copy of your marriage certificate, divorce decree, or court order)

If your passport doesn’t meet those criteria, you’ll have to renew by applying in person using form DS-11, and follow the same steps that are required for obtaining a brand new passport (see above).

Traveling internationally within the next two weeks? You’ll have to renew your passport at a Passport Acceptance Facility. (You can find the nearest office near you at travel.state.gov.) To avoid waiting in line all day, make an appointment online in advance.

DON’T DAWDLE!

Your passport doesn’t have to be expired for you to renew it. In fact, some countries require that your passport be valid at least six months beyond the dates of your trip, says Tammy Levent, CEO at Elite Travel Management Group (elitetravelgroup.net). As a result, Levent says the biggest mistake U.S. international travelers can make is waiting until the last minute to renew their passport.

GET A PASSPORT BOOK—NOT A CARD

Another common mistake people make, Levent says, is obtaining a passport card instead of a passport book. Passport cards are a lot cheaper—the application and execution fees combined is only $65 for adults 16 and older—but they’re not valid for international air travel; they're only acceptable for land and sea border crossings between the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean.

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