Vacation Step 1: How to Get a Passport

When we started talking vacation, one of the realizations we came to was that our choices were severely limited by the fact that our passports have expired.  Extremely expired, in fact.  So expired that we have to apply for new passports rather than just renew our old ones.

Thankfully, the process turns out to be pretty straightforward if a bit expensive and tedious.

  1. Fill out the form DS-11 (one for each of us).  This is super easy, especially since the State Department has a form-filler tool on their page so you just answer the questions and print out the form.  The only difficult part for us was doing the mental calculations to figure out the birth location and birth years for our parents.  This helped.
    • A note here: the form asks for the date of departure and destination.  This blank does not need to be filled in unless you are requesting expedited service.  If you’re willing to wait the 6-8 weeks it takes to get a new passport in the mail, then you have no worries here.  In our case, we have no idea where we want to go, so no issue.
    • A second note: DO NOT SIGN THE FORM UNTIL TOLD TO DO SO AT YOUR PASSPORT SERVICE CENTER.
    • You’ll need to decide which sort of passport you want.  You can have a regular passport book, just a passport card, or both.
      • A passport book is good for all sorts of travel internationally and, at present, costs $110 plus a $25 Execution Fee, for a total of $135.
      • A passport card is good for reentry to the United States at land and sea based ports from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean.  In other words, if you’re cruising the Caribbean, or driving to Mexico or Canada and don’t need to travel by air outside of the United States, this is a great option for you.  This option is far cheaper at $30 plus a $25 Execution Fee, for a total of $55.
      • If you want to do both, you pay $110 (for the book) plus ($30 for the Card) plus $25 (for the Execution Fee) for a total of $165.
  2. Gather originals of supporting documentation required by the DS-11.  In our case, and I suspect in many cases, this meant our old passports and our driver’s licenses.
  3. Make photocopies of supporting documentation.  Here there is a potential for a minor snag.  The DS-11 form says that copies cannot be two-sided, which seems both reasonable and easy.  I noticed, however, that our local passport service center has signs posted everywhere stating that the photocopies also have to include the front and back of each document ON THE SAME PAGE.  So, in our case we needed:
    1. A single sheet photocopy showing front and back of our driver’s licenses (one page for hers, one page for mine).
    2. A single sheet photocopy showing front and back (and presumably the inside cover with the picture and all the information) of our old passport.  Again, one for hers, one for mine.
    3. Not a big deal, but judging by the signs posted in about seven places in the service center, I’m guessing it’s a reason they turn a lot of people away.
  4. A passport photo for each of us that complies with the specifications outlined by the DS-11.  There are a lot of rules here, and it turns out that there are several apps for phones that can help you create the perfect picture.  The two I looked at were both free to download and install.  Both included guides to help you line up the picture and make sure it’s the right proportions and sizes.  One, Passport Photo Creator by Vital Docs, even runs your finished picture through several checks to help ensure it was compliant with the regulations and then offers to send the print to your local Walgreen’s where you can pick it up an hour later, this service was around $15.  The other, Passport Photo Booth by TRB Ventures LLC, did not include any automated checks, but would mail you two copies of your finished picture in about 7 days for around $6.  Mixed bag here:
    • Passport Photo Booth was easier to use, just line up the chin and the top of the head with the lines on your phone’s screen and take the picture, and the pics were cheaper.  This interface seems more in line with the regulations governing the photos.  If we’d had a good background and lighting, this would have been perfect for us.
    • Passport Photo Creator puts a whole torso based guideline on your screen that seemed anatomically unlikely (I could never get it to line up with my wife’s frame and I promise she’s not deformed or unusually sized, not even a little), but included checks to prevent people from making the most common mistakes. Unfortunately, the convenience of printing to Walgreen’s came at a premium.
    • Here’s what we decided and learned:
      • It’s not worth it.  Our local FedEx does passport photos for about $10 each and has a professional background set up to handle it (though the employees are definitely NOT trained on how to ensure the picture is compliant with regulations – none of them had ever done a passport photo before and they spent fifteen minutes trying to find the camera before I gave up).
      • Our local passport service center also does passport photos and knows what they are doing, for about the same price as FedEx.  We’re going that route.
      • If you want to try it anyway, the hardest part for us was getting the background to be evenly white and shadow free without digitally altering the image.
      • The most common mistakes (aside from trying to submit a photo that isn’t even close to meeting the requirements in terms of size and dimensions) involve obscuring the face and/or wearing glasses.  Don’t do either.
  5. MONEY.  This part just angers me.  It’s going to cost us about $165 each for passports and passport cards.  $140 goes to the State Department and $25 goes to the passport service center as an “Execution Fee.”  For many people, this makes travel outside the borders of the United States just that much more cost prohibitive. Out of curiosity, I looked into what other countries’ citizens are expected to pay.  The United States is definitely on par with our North American neighbors and Europe, but passport rates in Asia and Australia are quite a bit less than they are here (about 1/4 of the cost).  Not important to know I guess, but I found it interesting.
    • Note that you’ll be writing two checks if you use checks.  One for the State Dept and one for the Execution fee of $25.  Our passport service center accepts credit for the Execution Fee, but not for the State Dep’t Fee.  The State Dep’t fee is payable by check, money order, or cashier’s check.
  6. Once it’s all ready to go, you need to go to your passport service center and hand everything over.  As usual with government offices, expect to be turned away and have to come back with something that was clearly written on the form in a place you forgot to read.  Note that some passport service centers require an appointment, others allow walk-ins.  Call first.  Here’s your checklist on what to bring:
    1. DS-11
    2. Passport Photo
    3. Originals of Supporting Documents
    4. Photocopies of Supporting Documents
    5. Checkbook (you’ll be writing two checks) or Money Orders, Cashier’s checks.

At this point, this is all research on my part, but everything has been simple to find answers to.  I’ll be doing one passport a month to spread out the cost, starting next week.

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