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How to navigate an LGBTQ+ name/gender change for travel-related documentation

June 5 2022
11 min read
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If you are a transgender, nonbinary or gender-nonconforming person who has undergone a legal name change to better reflect your identity or wishes to change the gender marker on your passport to a different option (such as the gender-neutral "X" option the U.S. Department of State recently added to be more inclusive), you’ll have to apply for a new passport.

But with more global destinations opening up to those with a valid U.S. passport and summer travel just around the corner, the process of getting a new passport will likely remain time-consuming for the foreseeable future, so you’ll want to plan accordingly for this multistep, paperwork-filled journey.

Related: Passport wait times improving, but still worse than before pandemic

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I recently navigated this process with my adult child, who upon turning 18 in March wanted to legally change their name and documentation to self-identify as nonbinary before a joint birthday/high school graduation trip we have planned for June on board the new inclusive, everyone-is-welcome cruise line Virgin Voyages.

Based on our experience, here are some best practices to keep in mind along with everything you'll need to know to make similar changes to your travel documentation.

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Start the process as early as possible

Even from just a permission-to-travel perspective — leaving aside updates to other details like credit cards and frequent flyer programs — the process involves multiple steps that must be done in a specific order, each of which takes time and planning (and sometimes, fees and appointments are required, too). You’ll have to file a request for a new name/gender change with the local, county or state court system, obtain a new Social Security card, update your driver’s license and, finally, apply for a new passport.

Related: The ultimate guide to updating travel documents after a name change

Remember, name- and gender-change requests are fulfilled by government agencies, so delays are inevitable. In addition to beginning the process as far out as possible, be patient, read and reread all the necessary documentation and make sure you pay any required fees to avoid any unnecessary setbacks.

Know that everything hinges on the legal name change

(Photo by Drs Producoes/Getty Images)

If you are choosing a new name, you won’t be able to apply for or receive any other documentation until you petition for and are granted a legal name change in your relevant jurisdiction. Consider this step one — and, in many ways, the most important.

Changing your name legally may be handled by a county-based circuit court, but it will depend on which state you live in. Adults are generally required to complete a petition with their current and new name and address, get the petition notarized and mail or deliver the petition to the court.

If there's an option to pay extra for an additional certified copy, do so, as it’ll come in handy later when you need to mail in proof of the legal name change to apply for a new passport and other documentation. The certified copy will eventually be returned in the mail, but it’s helpful to have multiple copies available, as you may need to show proof of your name change for another purpose.

After the judge reviews the petition, you will be granted the change if it’s proven that there is no fraudulent motive involved. Typically, you will receive the official order in the mail.

For minors, there may be other steps involved, including one or both parents providing consent or advertising the proposed change in a local newspaper if one parent cannot be located. If parents do not consent, a hearing may be required. Turnaround time for receiving the approved court order varies depending on location.

Get a corrected Social Security card

If you have petitioned for and received a legal name change, the next step is to request a new Social Security card reflecting your new name.

Until recently, this was a really painful process, as all of the Social Security Administration offices around the country were shut down due to the pandemic, meaning that transactions needed to be handled through the mail. However, as of April 7, 2022, all offices are open and accepting in-person transactions.

Technically, you can make an appointment by phone, but wait times to speak to a live person can be quite long, so representatives suggest visiting your local office with the proper documentation and just waiting in line. (Offices usually close at 4 p.m., so plan accordingly.)

If you already have a Social Security card in your former name, bring it along with the original court order approving the name change and form SS-5. Make sure you bring another form of proof of identity, such as a U.S. driver's license, a state-issued non-driver identification card or a U.S. passport, too, in case you can’t be identified in the SSA database or have changed your name more than two years ago (or more than four years if you are younger than 18).

Once your request has been approved, you’ll receive your new card by mail within a few weeks.

Update your driver’s license

The exact process for updating your name and/or gender marker on your driver's license varies by state, so check your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles website to learn more about what you'll need to do and confirm what documentation is required. Most likely, you'll need your current license, the original court order for the name change, the completed application and applicable fees. Some states may also require presenting your updated Social Security card.

Although the nonbinary "X" gender marker isn't available in all states, some do give you this option instead of “M” or “F.”

Updating your driver's license will likely require an in-person visit to a local DMV location. To reduce the amount of time you wait on-site, make an appointment online when possible. You may also be able to update your voter registration and organ donor status at the same time.

You should receive your updated license in the mail within a few weeks.

Acquire a new passport

(Photo by Atit Phetmuangtong/EyeEm/Getty Images)

The U.S. Department of State made news when it announced it would be adding an "X" gender marker option to applications, a change which went into effect April 11, 2022. To change your gender marker to this new "X" option, you must apply in person for a new passport. You’ll have to print out form DS-11 and fill it out manually (using only black ink) to note the gender change, as an online fillable form with the "X" option is currently unavailable. Note that the "X" gender option is currently only available if you apply for a passport with routine service; in late 2023 the option will become available for expedited and urgent service.

If you're changing your name and have a valid passport and your legal name change documentation from the court, you can renew your passport by mail. Your current passport must have been issued within the last 15 years when you were at least 16 years old. If it doesn’t meet these qualifications, you'll need to make an in-person appointment online. Many post offices serve as local passport acceptance facilities, and some even offer photos for a $15 fee, eliminating the need to visit a CVS or another retail outlet for official passport photos before submitting your application.

For in-person applications, you’ll need to show your original proof of citizenship (such as a U.S. birth certificate or a valid or expired passport) and a photocopy. Additionally, you'll need proof of identification (like a current driver's license with a photo or a valid or expired passport) and a photocopy, as well as a photo that fits the State Department's criteria and the proper fees. Expect to pay at least $130 for the application fee and $35 for the execution fee for routine processing in eight to 11 weeks; expedited processing in five to seven weeks will incur additional fees.

While the State Department cannot guarantee you'll receive your passport before a noted travel date, you can specify the date and locations of any upcoming international travel in your application. If you haven’t received your new passport in the mail by the time your trip is five days away, you can make an urgent appointment at a passport agency.

Change your name or gender marker with TSA PreCheck or Global Entry

After you have received your updated passport, you can change your name in Trusted Traveler Programs. TSA PreCheck recently added an “X” gender marker for new or existing memberships that does not require submitting supporting documentation to request.

Related: Top credit cards for Global Entry and TSA PreCheck

To change your TSA PreCheck account, call 855-347-8371. If you have Global Entry, you'll need to visit one of the program’s enrollment centers to make any updates; check your local center to see if walk-ins are accepted or if you need to make an appointment. Remember to bring your new passport and official name change documentation from the court. Know that if you are enrolled in both programs, your TSA PreCheck account will be updated while changing your Global Entry information.

Related: Global Entry vs. TSA PreCheck: Which is better?

At this point, you can also update your name on frequent flyer and hotel loyalty program accounts and travel-related memberships like Priority Pass and AAA.

Request a new COVID-19 vaccination card

Depending on where you are traveling around the world, you may need to show your COVID-19 vaccination card to gain entry to the destination. If your card doesn’t match your ID, it could raise red flags and cause delays at your arrival airport.

Contact your local health department to request a new card. Some state health departments may simply require submitting a photo of your current card and a valid ID to get a new card, while others may require you visit a location where you received one or more COVID-19 vaccine doses in person to have a new card filled out.

As a precaution, keep a photo of your vaccine card on your phone when you travel. Know, though, that some destinations require showing the physical card.

Bottom line

While legally changing your name or gender can be a challenging process, with careful planning, you can update your travel documents.

Should you have questions, need more information about any step of the process or come across a particularly tricky scenario, know that there are resources you can tap into. Consult the National Center for Transgender Equality's guidance on LGBTQ+ travel resources for more tips about how to update your name and gender on travel documents.

Featured photo by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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