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Read This Before You Renew Your Passport

By Daniel Bortz
October 1, 2019
passport in hand
Margolana/Dreamstime
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 US, as some states are no longer accepting driver’s licenses as ID for flying domestically. The change took effect in 2018 when the Department of Homeland Security began implementing REAL ID Act, which will eventually require all states and US 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 US passport demand is at an all-time high, with 21,103,475 passports issued last year, up from 5,547,693 in 1996, according to the US Department of State.

Despite all the commotion, many US travelers forget to renew their passports, says Arnie Weissmann, editor in chief at Travel Weekly, a newspaper that covers the travel industry. “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 US passport

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If you’ve never traveled abroad, there’s a good chance you don’t even have a US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US
  • 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 US 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 (October 2019), passports for US 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 US 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. As a result, Levent says the biggest mistake US 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 US, Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean.

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Travel Tips

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Travel Tips

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Your liquids are out of sight, out of mind Sure, you remembered to take out your toiletries and empty your water bottle, but what about your roll-on deodorant, heating pad, or glow sticks? The former and the latter are fine in your carry-on as long as they’re less than 3.4 ounces or 100 milliliters, but gel-based items like heating pads and candles have to go in your checked bags. (As with any liquids, gel ice packs are fine as long as they’re completely frozen – if they’re at all melted or slushy, they have to meet the 3-1-1 requirement, unless they’re medically necessary.) On the off chance you’re transporting a Magic 8 ball, stick with your checked baggage there too. As the TSA’s reference page puts it, “For Carry-on bags: We asked the Magic 8 Ball and it told us…Outlook not so good! For Checked bags: We asked the Magic 8 Ball and it told us…It is certain!” 4. You snapped a picture of something you shouldn’t have Shooting photo or video isn’t completely verboten at security checkpoints, but the regulations around it are pretty hazy. The TSA says that you’re fine as long as you don’t reveal sensitive information, shoot equipment monitors that aren’t in public view, or interfere with the screening process in any way—including but “not limited to holding a recording device up to the face of a TSA officer so that the officer is unable to see or move, refusing to assume the proper stance during screening, blocking the movement of others through the checkpoint or refusing to submit a recording device for screening.” It’s easy to see how an innocent action could be interpreted as interference, so you’re probably better off skipping the snapshots, just to be on the safe side. 5. You’ve lost a loved one, and you’re traveling with their ashes Going “Code Grandma,” or simply taking a loved one to their final resting place? Some airlines might ban cremated remains from checked bags, but somewhat shockingly, the TSA as a whole has no issue with passengers bringing cremated remains on board, as long as they’re transported in a vessel that allows the scanners to see what’s inside. (Wood and plastic are fine, metals like tin or stainless steel, not so much.) If the officers can’t make out what’s in the container, it won’t be allowed. Per the site, “Out of respect for the deceased, TSA officers will not open a container, even if requested by the passenger.” 6. You’re heading for the big game, or Comic-Con, or a killer Halloween party – and you’ve dressed up to get in the mood Though it’s not strictly prohibited, dressing in costume, painting your face, or altering your appearance in any significant fashion could result in additional screening. TSA agents need to be able to identify you to wave you through the checkpoints, so save the makeup or the mask for a quick restroom change after you’ve cleared security or once you’ve landed at your destination. 7. Your smart luggage was grabbed for the dreaded gate check, and you forgot to pop out the battery Most rechargeable and non-rechargeable batteries – lithium, cell phone, laptop, and external batteries, plus power banks and portable rechargers – are fine in the cabin, but they become a problem when they’re stored under the plane. To avoid an unpleasant surprise, check the Federal Aviation Administration’s guidelines before you head for the airport. 8. You won a goldfish at the carnival, and you want to take him home It should go without saying, but live fish should not be relegated to the cargo hold. As one of few exceptions to the notorious 3-1-1 rule, live fish in water – no matter the amount – can go in your carry-on, as long as they’re in a transparent container and pass muster with the TSA officer. 9. You let the holiday spirit take over Air travel during the holiday season is bad enough – don’t make it any harder than it has to be. Your carefully wrapped gifts can trigger an alarm, so use bags and boxes instead of wrapping paper and tape whenever possible. Even the most minor trinkets can cause trouble: Snow globes bigger than a tennis ball likely violate the 3-1-1 liquids rule, and Christmas crackers aren’t allowed at all, either in the cabin or in the cargo hold. Foodwise, fruitcake is fine, but if you’re smuggling gravy across state lines, be sure to mix it with your mashed potatoes if you don’t want it confiscated by security – a lesson model, presenter and cookbook author Chrissy Teigen learned on the fly this summer.

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