Traveling outside the USA with a valid passport seems a no-brainer, but for passport newbies—or for folks who haven’t worried about their passports in almost 10 years—it’s good to keep in mind a few important tips.
1. A valid passport is required for all travel outside the USA. Granted, there are a couple of US territories that do not require them, but for United States citizens traveling to Europe (and even to Canada, Mexico, and most Caribbean locations), a passport is required. Passports for minors under age 16 expire 5 years after the issue date; adult passports expire in 10 years.
2. The European Schengen zone requires travelers to have a passport valid for 3 months beyond their proposed stays. Many European countries outside the Schengen zone (and around the world) require a passport holder to have 3-6 blank visa pages and 6 months’ time available before expiration. Some airlines will not allow you to board the plane if you have not met this time stipulation. For more information on the Schengen, click here.
3. Passport photo guidelines are strict. You will need to provide a passport photo that meets the size, quality and other guidelines established by the passport agency. They will refuse photos that do not meet their requirements, thereby slowing down the processing of your passport. Many drug stores, shipping offices and photography studios will do these for you at reasonable prices. It is also possible to take your own, but, again, guidelines are strict, so know them before you shoot.
4. Passports are pricey, beginning at over $100 USD for minors and $110 USD for adults. Fees vary based on whether you’re adding pages, renewing, or expediting the processing of your passport.
5. Passports take time to process. It may take up to 10 weeks before receiving your passport. The passport office advises travelers to renew their passports 6-9 months in advance of expiration. Passport offices are frequently understaffed, and demand has ballooned post-pandemic. It is possible to expedite the processing of your passport—and it comes with a fee. UPDATE: As of November 2023, the wait for passport fulfillment is 7-10 weeks. Those who need it sooner may pay an additional $60 to expedite it in order to receive it within 3-5 weeks. These timeframes do not include up to 2 weeks for processing to begin after submitting your application. Please plan ahead!
6. There are many passport acceptance facilities in each state, and while a small town might not host one, you should be able to find one down the road in a sizable city. You can look for a location near you on the U.S. Department of State website, along with other detailed information about obtaining or renewing your passport. Please check to find out which offices are open, what the hours might be, and if there are any special requirements (like appointments). In some cases, applying by mail may be the best solution, and one that is recommended by the Department of State. Expect delays, however. And use only USPS when applying by mail, using a trackable delivery method.
7. While it may seem confusing, obtaining a passport is fairly simple. It is never necessary to pay someone to send in the paperwork and fees for you.
8. You will need your passport with you when checking into many hotels outside the USA, buying a short-use phone or SIM card, or renting a vehicle (you’ll also need a valid driver’s license for the car). What does valid mean? Click here for more details.
9. It’s a good idea to make two photocopies of your passport. Leave one at home with a trusted friend or relative and pack one in a secured bag when you travel. These will come in handy if you lose your passport and need to replace it.
10. While abroad, carry your passport on your person when traveling between destinations, guarding it as you do cash and credit cards. When staying in a hotel, some prefer to leave their passports behind when out for the day, securing it in the hotel room safe. Savvy travelers tend to disagree on this point, so it is a matter of comfort level and carefully assessing the particular environment you’re in.
You may have special circumstances and needs that arise concerning your USA passport. These are generally addressed on the U.S. Department of State website, along with forms, instructions and requirements, fee and payment info, and contact details for emergency situations.
Smart travelers make sure their passports are in order well before their travel dates, so check yours today. And have fun on that trip.
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