Are you ready to apply for your first US Passport? This article will share a little about passports in the United States, then walk you step by step through the application process. At the end, you will learn about six common mistakes that are made during the application process. Avoiding these mistakes will save you from taking the walk of shame from your passport appointment!
Passport Usage in the United States
Passports have been in use in the United States since the Revolutionary War. The earliest uses were by diplomats (like Benjamin Franklin) who were visiting France to gain allies. Because photography wasn’t around yet, these documents had a written description of the passport holder.
In more recent times, the number of passport holders in the United States is low when compared to other countries. There are a number of reasons for this, including the large land area of the United States and less vacation time in comparison to many countries around the world.
In recent decades there has been a marked increase in passports issued in the United States. Since 1990, passport numbers have increased from 4% of the US population to over 43% in 2020 (See chart below). So what has contributed to the increase of passports?
Travel is More Accessible
A two-fold reason that more passports are being issued in the United States now is travel has become more accessible. Through various resources online and affordable flights to many destinations, travel is now easier and more friendly on the pocketbook.
Changes in United States Law
Another important reason more Americans are applying for passports is a law change affecting US citizens.
The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, implemented by Department of Homeland Security as directed by passage of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA), now requires American citizens to obtain passports to enter Canada and Mexico and Caribbean by air as of January 2007.
Applying for Your New US Passport
While you may not have international travel plans in your immediate future, the best time to apply for your new United States passport is when you are not in a rush to obtain it. By starting the process before you need to use a passport you save money on expedite fees, which can be as much as 50% of the normal application fee.
Another bonus in applying before you have a trip planned is sparing yourself the worry about when your new passport will arrive.
REAL ID – New Requirements for Domestic Travel
Another consideration for having a passport is the pending enforcement of the REAL ID Act. Beginning October 1 2021, the Department of Homeland Security will require a REAL ID compliant ID for travel within the United States.
All US states, as of September 2020, issue IDs that comply with this regulation. However, if you have not renewed your driver’s license or state ID since your state became compliant, you may be denied boarding on domestic flights after October 1 without additional identification.
The good news is a US passport is REAL ID compliant! Additional information on REAL ID is available at the end of this post.
The steps below will ensure that your passport application process runs as smooth as possible.
Step One: Collect Identification and Citizenship Documents
I list this as step one because this may take time if these are not already in your possession.
This must be the original document or a certified copy with the embossed stamp of the entity where the document if filed (IE: State or county registrar). This cannot be a photo copy, although you will also need to submit a copy with your application, whether this is a photocopy or a second certified copy. If you submit two certified copies, one will be returned to you.
If you need additional information on obtaining your original birth certificate in your state, resources can be found at the end of this article.
Drivers License or Approved ID
To prove identity for your new passport, a government issued photo ID must be presented. Examples approved identification are:
- State Issued Drivers License or ID
- Military ID
- Certificate of Naturalization
- Certificate of Citizenship
- Federal, State or Municipal Employee ID
You will show this ID to the accepting agent during your passport application appointment. A copy (provided by you) will be submitted with your application. Be sure to have a copy of the front and back of your ID. Make sure this is single sided with either separate sheet for each side or BOTH sides of ID on the same side.
Important Reminders on Document Copies
- All copies must be on 8.5” x 11” sized paper
- Copies must be single sided
- Do NOT plan for the office accepting your passport application to provide copies for you
Step Two: Complete Passport Application Form
The form to apply for a new US passport is Form DS-11.
The PDF form is 6 pages but most of the pages are instructions. If you were born outside of the US, you will want to pay extra attention to these instructions.
While the application form can be completed by hand using the PDF on the Department of State website, forms that are incomplete, not legible, or have correction marks can lead to delays or denials of your passport application.
suggest strongly recommend using this online passport application for accuracy, clarity and speed. It will help with mandatory fields and legibility. Once the form is completed, you will be able print your application to bring to your appointment. I suggest printing two copies so that you have a copy to reference should there be any questions about the information submitted.
Passport Application Options and Fees
The application form will have options regarding the form of passport you wish to receive. While the standard passport book will suit all of your travel needs, you may wish to add a passport card.
Passport Book: This is the passport with pages for visa stamps (Sufficient for all travel)
Passport Card: This is a card similar to a driver’s license and will fit in a wallet. It is valid ONLY for land crossings to Mexico or Canada and for cruises departing from and returning to the United States
Both: Checking this option means you are ordering both the book and the card
If you are only planning to get one document, the passport book is the best option as it is the most versatile and will cover all of your international travel needs. I recommend getting both. Even though there is an additional cost to doing so, that difference is currently $30 for adults and is well worth the money. The passport card can be used as another form of ID. While it cannot be used for air travel, this additional identification can come in handy as proof of citizenship should you lose your passport book while abroad.
Pro Tip: Please note that there is a separate number on your passport book and your passport card. Be careful not use the number from your passport card when checking in for an international flight. This will cause problems.
Regular Size or Large Passport?
The other choice you will have on your passport application is whether to get the regular book size (with 28 pages for visa stamps) or large book with 52 pages. There is no additional cost for this choice. Things to consider:
- While a passport is valid for up to 10 years, if your pace of travel fills your pages prior to expiration it will need to be renewed sooner
- Depending on the country, a visa stamp may take a quarter of a page or a full page.
- Some countries require up to 4 blank pages in your passport for entry.
- Extra passport pages means a thicker document to deal with.
For reference, on my current passport I have the regular book and have used my passport 22 times in 6 years. I have 11 full pages and 2 half pages remaining.
DO NOT SIGN YOUR PASSPORT APPLICATION UNTIL YOUR APPOINTMENT!!!
Step Three: Passport Photo
While you can take your passport photo on your own against a white background (A selfie will not do) or visit businesses that offer passport photo services (Chain pharmacies, for example), I strongly STRONGLY recommend having your photo taken at the acceptance facility where you submit your application. Costs vary depending on the acceptance facility (Mine was $10), but will usually cost less than a third party.
If your photo is taken incorrectly by you or a third party, your photo will be rejected. This will add to your passport application processing time.
Reasons photos can be rejected include:
- wrong size
- too much blank space
- wrong background
- too dark
- too bright
- wearing glasses.
The Department of State advises that nearly a quarter million photos were rejected in 2017.
Step Four: Your Passport Appointment
New passport applications must be made in person at an acceptance facility. This is usually at your county clerk, a local post office or a public library. At this location, your identity and documents are verified. Your citizenship document(s), identification copies and photo, along with your application payment are collected, then mailed to the Secretary of State for processing. You will also pay your execution fee separately.
For my appointment, with all of my documentation, application form and payment in order, I was in and out within 10 minutes.
Most acceptance locations require an appointment. You can find acceptance facilities in your area within the resource links at the end of this article. For your selected location, you will find specific information for that facility (hours, contact information, appointment scheduling process, payment information for your $35 Execution Fee).
If you are having your passport photo taken at the acceptance facility, be sure to check the “Photo On-Site” option in the search criteria.
Checklist for Passport Appointment
- Certified Citizenship Document + Copy
- Approved Photo ID + Copy
- Completed Passport Application form (Do not sign until asked to do so by acceptance agent)
- Correct Payment (Separate payment for Application Fee and Execution Fee)
- Correct Photo (but if you followed my recommendation you’re getting your photo at the acceptance office)
Family Passport Appointments
If you are getting passports for family, each member must be present at the appointment (including infants). Applications for children under 16 require presence of both parents (There are provisions to address if this is not possible).
Another important detail is that applications are one per person. This also means that payment will need to be separate. For example, a family of four will require four passport applications and four separate checks (or money orders) made out to “U.S. Department of State” (No abbreviations).
For your execution fee, ($35 per application) your acceptance facility MIGHT accept a single payment source and MIGHT accept additional forms of payment beyond check or money order but confirm directly with them prior to your appointment to ensure there are no issues.
Common Passport Application Mistakes:
- Signing application prior to appointment
- Picture errors
- Wrong form of payment/Combined payment
- Not providing certified embossed citizenship document
- Not bringing photocopies of identifying documents
- Incomplete information
I hope this information makes the process of applying for your first US passport run smoothly. If you used this information to get started on your new US passport, let me know!
Sources, Additional Information and Resource Links
- Passport Acceptance Facility Search Page – Find A Location Near You
- Online Passport Application Form
- US Passport Application Status – Check Status Online
- Department of State Website
- US Census Website
- No-Vacation Nation (Center for Economic and Policy Research)
- REAL ID Act – Department of Homeland Security
- Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative – Changes in Passport Requirements
- National Center for Health Statistics – State by State Where to Find Birth Certificate Information