Fully updated April 10, 2023.
What’s the most important thing that you cannot travel without? Sturdy luggage? A plane ticket? A refillable water bottle? No. The right answer is your passport!
But it’s kind of a lot right? If you’re getting your first passport, you have to make sure you have all the right paperwork, your passport photo is exactly right (if unflattering), and that you have enough time to send off for it and then get it back before your big trip. And then there’s the stress that it’ll get rejected or worse–lost in the mail!
Not to worry! I’ve got you covered. Here’s everything you need to know so you can start traveling the world without limits!
How to Apply for Your First Passport
Applying for your first passport involves the most legwork and the most paperwork. But if you start to feel overwhelmed and intimidated, don’t worry! Just remember what I tell myself in my travels: “People dumber than me do this every day.” Seriously, I know a lot of people with passports, and not all of them are smarter or more capable than you! You can do this, and then you can travel anywhere in the world.
Get a Passport Application
You can get a passport application at the post office, or you can print a copy of the application at home from the State Department’s website. First-time applicants must apply in person, and the forms must be filled out before you arrive. It’s a six-page document, but only the last two pages have to be filled out. The first four pages are informational, and you should definitely read them. Click here for the application.
Get Your Passport Photos
You actually have more options to get your passport photo than you might think!
- United States Post Offices: You can pick up your application and get your passport photo taken in the same place, at the same time! You have to make an appointment to have a passport photo taken here, so it does take a little extra planning. Click here to schedule an appointment at a post office.
- Retail Stores: Some retail stores also offer passport photo services. Click the name of the store to make an appointment or get more information about passport photos at Wal-Mart, Target, or Staples.
- Pharmacies: Some big-box pharmacies offer passport photo services. Click the name of the store to get more information about passport photos at CVS and Walgreens. You will not need an appointment.
- Shipping Facilities: Some shipping facilities offer passport photo services. Click the name of the store to schedule an appointment or get more information about passport photos at UPS and FedEx.
- Take it yourself: You can take your own, but you would still need to get it printed, and it must adhere to this list of parameters. I don’t recommend this because there is a higher likelihood of it being rejected. I recommend paying the $12-$17 to simply get it done correctly the first time.
Make an Appointment
Once you have your paperwork, make an appointment at a Passport Acceptance Facility. This could be a post office, clerk’s office, or other official government office. Click here to find the Acceptance Facility nearest to you. There may be an appointment the same day, or the soonest appointment may be weeks away. This is why it’s important to apply early, even before you have an international trip booked!
What to Bring to Your Passport Appointment
This is where a checklist comes in handy! If you show up to your appointment without any of these items, you will be turned away and have to start all over again. Don’t forget anything!
- Your Passport Application (must be completed prior to arriving)
- Original proof of Citizenship (birth certificate, certificate of naturalization, certificate of citizenship, or click here for more information); this must be an original, not a copy
- Copy of proof of Citizenship (copy of your chosen proof of citizenship above)
- Identification (driver’s license or similar; see the complete list here)
- Copy of identification (Copy of your ID above; be sure to include copies of front and back)
- One 2″x2″ Color Passport Photo (See above)
- Payment via credit card, check, or money order ($130 for passport book plus $35 acceptance fee; other fees may apply)
When you apply, you can track your application’s progress here, but it may take up to two weeks for the processing to fully begin. For the most up-to-date information, check the State Department’s Passport Requirements.
Also this: How to Apply for Global Entry
The Waiting Game
Once you’ve given over all the necessary documentation, the waiting game begins. Processing times are longer since 2020, so it’s important to apply as early as possible. If something isn’t right with your passport photo, documentation, or application, the whole application will be rejected, and you’ll have to go through the process all over again. But let’s be optimistic!
- Regular processing time: 6-9 weeks
- Expedited: 3-5 weeks (additional $60 fee)
- Need it faster? Make an appointment with a passport agency or center.
Also helpful: How to Get Your Passport Fast
How to Renew Your Passport
You will need to submit your passport for renewal before it expires, or if you are changing your name (like I did when my sweet husband and I got married two years before my passport would have expired). Check the State Department’s Website for the latest information and requirements, but here are the high points.
When to Renew Your Passport
Passports are good for 10 years… except for the last 6 months. You may not be allowed to leave your home country if your passport expires within 6 months, or if your return date is less than six months from the expiration date. You will have to renew it at least within that last six-month period, which can take several weeks, as noted above.
This is a new program that is still in the early stages, and it is still in “limited release” as I write this in January 2023. You may be able renew your passport online if you meet the criteria. Click here for the requirements. When my husband renews his passport in a couple of years, I’ll write about online renewal for you!
NOTE: When you begin the online renewal process, your current passport becomes invalid. You may not travel abroad with that passport while your online renewal is processing.
Renew by Mail
To renew by mail, you have to have your passport in your possession (if it’s lost, you will have to renew in person), it must be undamaged, have been issued when you were 16 or older, have been issued in the last 15 years. If you are renewing due to a name change, you must be able to document the name change (marriage certificate is an example of proof of name change.
What to send to renew by mail:
- Printed and filled out renewal form.
- Your most recent U.S. passport (which will be voided and returned to you separately from your new passport)
- Copy of name change documents (if applicable, such as a marriage certificate, divorce certificate, or court-ordered name change documentation)
- New passport photo (please staple it correctly and check the passport photo requirements; I got mine done at CVS without an appointment in about 5 minutes)
- A check with the application fee ($130, subject to change; include your full name and date of birth at the top of the check)
When you have gathered all your materials, check the State Department’s Renew By Mail website under list item number 6 for the appropriate address to send your materials. It varies by state.
Also helpful: How to Get an Impossible Visa
What to Keep with Your Passport
You are usually fine to travel with just your passport, but sometimes a few more things can come in handy. Here are the things I keep with mine
Your Yellow Vaccination Card (and now pandemic vaccination card as well)
Your yellow card is a record of all your relevant vaccinations and immunizations for travel purposes. Some countries will not let you in without one, and some countries will force a vaccination on you if you don’t have proof of your immunity to diseases like yellow fever. A travel vaccination nurse told me that–I did not make it up! Please keep your yellow card with your passport so you can show it if necessary.
More info here: Your Guide to the Yellow Card for Travel
Visas and Other Documentation
Some visas will be glued or stapled into your passport, but sometimes you will receive something that looks like a receipt at customs, or you will have to hang onto a portion of your customs form upon entering the country. You’ll have to keep that with your passport so you can give it back for the country’s records when you leave. Don’t throw anything away!
More here: What to Do When You Lost Your Passport
Copy of Your Marriage Certificate
When my husband and I got our marriage certificate, we mentioned that we like to travel. The man at the counter said that he knew of a couple’s situation where the husband got hurt, but the wife was not allowed into the hospital room because she had no proof that they were married. I don’t know how true that was, but it costs nothing to keep a copy of my marriage certificate with my passport, so I do!
Don’t forget to renew this! How to Renew Global Entry
Airline Phone Numbers
This has come in handy more than once! We have a copy of all United’s toll-free numbers for the countries to which they fly. We had to use this when our flights home got cancelled in Ecuador in 2015, and most recently in Chile in 2017. You can make toll-free calls on Skype or on a pay phones in the country you’re visiting, or enable wi-fi calling on your cell phone to make free calls as long as you have access to wi-fi.
Also good: How to Know if Airline Loyalty is Right for You
There are lots of options for passport covers, and though they are not necessary, having one can help you stay organized. Mine has pockets on either side, and that’s really helpful for me. Here are a few options:
More here: The Top 10 Essentials for All Your Travels
Keep Copies of Your Passport
It doesn’t hurt to have a hardcopy of your passport’s picture page to keep somewhere other than with your passport, like in a pocket of your carry-on. I also keep a photo of my passport’s picture page on my phone. I’ve had to upload a photo of my passport several times over the last few years, so I recommend keeping a photo on your phone for easy access.
Keep reading: The Best Bags for All Your Travels
A visa is travel documentation that shows you have permission to enter a country, and it will be glued, stamped, or kept loose with your passport. Do a quick Internet search for “do Americans need a visa to visit [insert country]” before you do anything else–including before you buy your plane ticket! Every country is a little different in their visa requirements and timing, so do your research.
Some countries allow you to obtain a “Visa on Arrival” (VOA), which means you can apply and pay for your visa when you land in the country, before going through customs. Here is a quick list of what to pay attention to if you find out you need a visa.
- How long does it take to apply for your visa?
- How much does it cost?
- Will it require a full page of your passport? Half page?
- Do I have a full or half page available for that?
- Can I get a loose leaf visa if it requires a full page? (We did that for Vietnam to save a page in our passports.)
- Do I have enough time left before my passport expires (at least 6 months from your return travel date)?
- Can I apply for my visa online, by mail, in person, or another way?
More here: How to Get a Tourist Visa
Want more? Check out my Travel Tips Page for all your visa, passport, and Global Entry needs!
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11 thoughts on “The Traveler’s Ultimate Guide to Passports”
Super important post, especially pointing out that the passport is good for 10 years except the last six months. Mi know someone who was denied boarding their plane because the passport was good for 5 months and the country she was going to required 6 months. She lost 3 days of her vacation (and a big chunk of money) expediting a renewed passport. She was lucky it wasn’t more.
Thanks! Yeah, a lot of people don’t know that until it’s too late and they are already at the airport! That stinks about your friend. I can’t imagine how much rearranging everything and expediting must have cost!