How to Apply For (or Renew) Your Passport

Want to go abroad? Here's how to get your own passport

Traveling abroad isn't quite as easy as traveling domestically. There are several extra items you'll need, including an outlet converter, maybe a phrasebook, and definitely a passport. A passport identifies you as an American citizen and is required for travel outside of the United States. You can't get past any border checks without one. If your passport is expired, you simply won't be able to travel. So how do you get one? And if you already have one, what's the process for renewal?

Step 1: Do you need a new passport?

If you don't already have a passport, you'll need one to travel outside the U.S. Note that you'll have to pay a processing fee of about $100 to obtain your passport. If you've been issued one in the past, check the expiration date in the passport to see if it's still valid Passports last 10 years, so if it's been more than 10 years, you'll likely need to renew.

Note that you'll want a new passport (even if it's not expired) if you've changed your legal name or if your passport is damaged. You don't necessarily have to get a new passport if your name has changed. It's just a lot easier than having to carry around supporting documents like a marriage license. If your passport is damaged, you'll definitely need a shiny new one.

Additionally, if you're planning to only travel by land or sea to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, or Bermuda, you can apply for a passport card instead. The card is cheaper than a full book and is perfect for a road trip or a cruise. If you're traveling by air, you'll always need a full passport book.

Step 2: How do you get your passport?

To apply for a passport, there are various forms and documents required. All applications need the appropriate government form, proof of U.S. citizenship, a government-issued photo ID, a color passport photo, and your payment for the fees associated. If approved, you'll receive your passport within 4-6 weeks, depending on the backlog.

- In person

If you're applying for your first passport, then you'll have to visit a passport center in person. This includes if your old passport is more than 15 years old and if your old passport has been damaged or lost. You'll also have to visit a center if your name has changed, but you don't have supporting documents. Some passport centers have appointments set up so you won't have to wait in line for ages. Some centers also let you take photos there for an additional fee.

This trip is required if you're applying for a child under 16 too. In addition to the other documents, you'll need proof of your relationship with the child. Both parents must appear at the office to sign off or submit a consent form for signed an absent parent.

- By mail

Once you have a passport, you can easily renew by mail. It must be undamaged and less than 15 years old. You can't renew by mail if your first passport was obtained when you were under 16 years old. In the package, you'll need to include your old passport as well as documents proving a name change (if necessary). You can mail it at any post office and you're set.

Step 3: Can you get your passport any faster?

Yep. If you're willing to pay extra for expedited service, you can get your passport much faster than the typical 4-6 week wait time. If you're traveling within 2-3 weeks, you can pay an additional $60 for expedited service and overnight shipping fees. If you need it in less time than that, you'll have to apply in person and pay the fees. You should be able to avoid these extra fees if your trip is planned well in advance. But in an emergency, you'll probably have to pony up.

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