Everything you need to know about getting your child’s passport

Aug 20, 2020

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Getting your child’s first passport is a major travel milestone.

However, getting that perfect passport photo of an infant that can’t raise their head, ensuring both parents are available to go and apply in person, and keeping track of renewing the passport every five years (really, every 4.5 years) is slightly less exciting.

But — if you want to leave the country with your whole family (you know, once we’re allowed to do so again), you need to first put in the work to have the fun. So, here’s what you need to know about obtaining your child’s U.S. passport.

Related: 11 magical places to travel with your family — that aren’t Disney

Child passport basics

Wait until your baby is born and then request that birth certificate

You can do lots to prepare for life “after baby” before your baby is born, but getting a passport isn’t one of those things you can check off the list in advance.

Sit tight and once your tiny traveler arrives, immediately request a certified birth certificate, which will be necessary for obtaining the passport. You’ll need the “long form” version of the birth certificate that comes from the Bureau of Vital Statistics, and not a commemorative version you may get from the hospital. The birth certificate will need the registrar’s signature and must be embossed, impressed or have a multicolored seal of the registrar.

The exact process of getting the birth certificate varies around the country, but in normal times it is often it is possible within the first week or two of life. You don’t have to have your baby’s social security number to get a passport, though if you have one, it must be provided.

Related: What to know before flying with a lap infant

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Make an appointment

If you need your child’s passport ASAP due to a family emergency or similar, make an appointment with an actual passport agency. Otherwise, do a little homework to see where to apply for a passport in person in your area.

You’ll often see courthouses and post offices on the list of approved places to complete the passport application process in-person but double-check to see if the facility is currently open. In many cases, you’ll need to make an appointment at these acceptance facilities before just showing up and assuming they will be able to assist you. This is true even at places that previously accepted walk-ins.

Have passport photos made

Some acceptance facilities will take your passport photos on-site, but many don’t so don’t assume without double-checking. Getting a passport photo of an infant is a pretty funny process.

Basic passport photo rules are that you need to submit one color photo taken within the last six months using a plain white background. The photo needs to be 2 x 2 inches in size and within that space, the head must be between 1 to 1 3/8 inches (25 to 35 mm) from the bottom of the chin to the top of the head. You can’t make any alterations, use filters, etc.

The photo will require a neutral expression or natural smile with both eyes open. You will need to face the camera straight-on with your face in full view.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

In the photo, your child cannot wear glasses, masks, hats, uniforms, etc. They’ll need to wear everyday clothes and take everything off the head except for some basic jewelry (if desired) that doesn’t obstruct their face.

There is a little more leeway with passport photos of babies than for older children and adults, as it is specifically called out that an infant’s eyes don’t have to be open, or entirely open.

It can be hard to get a newborn to look right at the camera with their eyes, so just do your best to check all the other boxes. You can put a child in a car seat with a white or off-white blanket behind the child to get the photo if that helps. We’ve also done it with our youngest laying on a white sheet when she was an infant.

Some websites help crop your homemade passport photo to the appropriate dimensions if you go this DIY route.

Getting that infant passport photo (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
Getting that infant passport photo (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Gather your paperwork

In advance of your appointment, complete some paperwork and get everything in order.

For most U.S. born infants, you will need the following items to apply for a U.S. passport:

  • Completed, unsigned form DS-11
  • Certified birth certificate meeting the criteria outlined above (this serves as both evidence of U.S. citizenship and evidence of relationship) – if the parents’ full names are not both listed on the birth certificate, you will need some additional documentation, or you can utilize a fully valid, undamaged U.S. passport (may be expired) as proof of citizenship. (Digital copies of the birth certificate will not suffice.)
  • A copy of the front (and back, if there is printed information) of the U.S. citizenship evidence you’re submitting.
  • You’ll need to provide evidence of the parental relationship, which may be the birth certificate, but could also be an adoption decree, divorce/custody decree, etc.
  • Parent’s ID (valid driver’s license or passport will work)
  • Copy of each identification document — front and back
  • Both parents need to appear in person with the child if the child is under 16, or you may be able to complete form DS-3053 in the presence of a certified notary public if it is not possible to appear together.
  • Submit an eligible passport photo of the child
  • Payment for fees (total fees will likely be $105+ depending on your specific needs, $80 to the Department of State and $35 to the acceptance facility). Be aware that you may need to pay the acceptance facility separately from the application fee so bring a few checks. If you have a photo taken at the facility, you will likely need to pay some additional amount for that as well.

Related: How to survive a flight with children of any age

Child passports are only valid for 5 years (and not even really that long)

Adult U.S. passports are typically valid for 10 years, so it may not even cross your mind that your kid’s passport has expired after just five years if they obtained it when they were under 16. Also, remember that many countries won’t allow you to visit with fewer than six months left on a passport, which makes the true life of a child passport shorter than five years.

This is a snag TPG contributor Juan Ruiz found himself in recently, as a month before a family trip to Morocco he realized he hadn’t double-checked the expiration dates on his daughters’ passports in a while. Sure enough, Morocco requires a passport with six months or more of validity after travel dates, so he had to scramble to get his twins’ passports renewed since they didn’t have that amount of time left before they expired.

To make things extra complex, the passport expiration and renewal rules change when kids turn 16, and again when they reach 18.

TPG contributor Juan Ruiz with his traveling twins. (Photo courtesy of Juan Ruiz)
TPG contributor Juan Ruiz with his traveling twins. (Photo courtesy of Juan Ruiz)

In normal times, if you find yourself in a similar situation, make an appointment to visit a passport center (if your travel date is less than three weeks away) or arrange for expedited service at an acceptance facility near you (if you’re traveling in less than eight weeks). However, in current times, your expedited options are more limited outside of defined family emergencies, so it is imperative to plan in advance.

Related: Tips for a first-time family trip to Europe

Kids can’t just renew passports

If you are an adult, you can often complete your passport renewal process by mail. So, the second time around, the renewal should be easy for kids, too, yes? Wrong.

Unfortunately, you can’t just renew a kid’s passport. You have to get an entirely new one — in person, just like the first time.

Image by Getty Images
(Photo by Getty Images)

Applying for passports during COVID-19

While the basic steps of applying for a child passport haven’t changed, know that during the ongoing pandemic, things are moving slower and not all passport agencies or acceptance facilities have fully reopened. As of this writing, there is also currently a backlog of around a million passport applications, so allow lots of extra time and apply or renew your passports several months in advance of any potential travel plans.

Related: Should you apply for a passport right now

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Bottom line

While you are thinking about your child’s passport, it’s also probably a good time to think through whether your family would benefit from the children having Global Entry or NEXUS, too, which would be a separate application process.

Getting your child’s passport taken care of is not fun, and it will take more effort than you are probably used to when getting your own passport. But, once it is done, you’ve got around 4.5 years of passport stamps to collect and memories to make.

Read on if you need additional child passport related tips:

Featured image by goodmoments/Getty Images

Additional reporting by Dia Adams

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