Learn from my experience: How to avoid a 7-week passport renewal saga
Editor’s note: This story was updated on July 21, 2021. It was originally published July 9, 2021.
Earlier this summer, on a Thursday morning, I thought I would be super proactive and submit my U.S. passport for renewal on June 3, nearly four months ahead of its expiration date in late September.
I walked a mere five minutes to the closest post office and was pleasantly surprised to be greeted with zero lines and an extremely friendly and knowledgeable Postal Service employee who offered to double-check to make sure I had all of the necessary documents in tow.
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I did, and off it went, along with a check for $110 for routine service for my passport book plus $7.95 for two-day shipping to the National Passport Processing Center in Philadelphia. Note that a passport book is required for international air travel.
At this point, I could have chosen to expedite my renewal, which costs an additional $60 and, as it turns out, would have been supremely helpful given the circumstances I am about to detail. However, as I mentioned, I thought I was giving myself ample time to renew. I had no plans to leave the country for at least the remainder of 2021, so waiting up to four-and-a-half months was a non-issue.
Fast forward to June 24, and it's my first week as a reporter at TPG. I mention to my new editor that I am currently without a passport after writing my first story about the Netherlands reopening to Americans.
Read more: The Netherlands to welcome back Americans, with little restriction
You can imagine my surprise when my editor asks if I am vaccinated and if I would like to travel to report on the ground from Amsterdam about getting into the country that weekend, a mere two days after starting this role. Needless to say, I was bummed. In fact, my exact words were "(expletive)! Curse my timing!!"
But I am not one to give up easily; in fact, I can be rather annoyingly persistent. Especially after spending most of the pandemic in a 500-square-foot apartment with my partner, minus a brief road trip home to see my parents, which — no offense to my mom and dad — isn't exactly a vacation. Now that I had a chance to potentially leave the country, I was going to do everything I could to make it happen.
At this point, I go to the "Frequently Asked Questions" section under Passport Help on the State Department's website and am instructed to call the National Passport Information Center to retroactively request expedited service for my pending passport application.
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I attempt to reach someone to receive instructions on how to request to expedite my passport seven times throughout the day and am met by a busy signal each time. My call never goes through. Because I am unable to reach them via phone, I email NPIC@state.gov to ask the same thing, to which I receive an automated response saying they would get back to me in one to two business days. Spoiler alert: I'm still waiting.
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Over the rest of the day, I proceed to:
- Text my landlord, who happens to work at the State Department, who says he wishes he could help, but the organization is just too large.
- Text three friends, one who works at the State Department and two who previously worked on Capitol Hill, one of whom confirms this is an ongoing problem due to a backlog caused by the agency being closed for appointments during the pandemic.
- Attempt to book an appointment for urgent international travel plans within 72 hours at one of the local passport centers in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City, of which there are none available.
- Reach out to both the district and D.C. office of my congressman, Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia, whose office tells me they will submit my information to their staffer who handles passports and get back to me.
- Call the D.C. office of Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia and am told that submitting multiple government requests on my behalf would potentially slow down the process.
The next day, June 25, I continue by:
- Messaging three D.C.-based contacts on LinkedIn, none of which respond.
- Calling both locations of Beyer's office again to request an update. The update is that there is no update.
- Calling the National Passport Information Center two more times, bringing the total to nine calls at this point, without ever successfully getting through the busy signal.
- Calling Warner's office again at the end of the day to see if rules regarding submitting passport requests had somehow magically changed.
- Harassing, I mean, messaging the State Department via Instagram and Twitter. They did apologize via DM, and I was a bit dramatic in referring to my "emergency work trip."
Related: Reopening Europe: When can you visit again? A country-by-country guide
By that evening, I had decided to move on for a bit and take a walk in D.C. On that walk, I decide I actually cannot stop thinking about this and call the passport center just one more time, thinking the phone line will potentially be less busy after hours on a Friday night. By some miracle, I am pushed through to the point where I am actually on hold to speak to an agent. "Woohoo!" I thought. So I continue my walk and nearly two hours later, as I head home, I am still on hold. I remain on hold from 6:09 p.m. for nearly four hours before hanging up shortly after 10 p.m. as their website states that customer service representatives are available Mondays through Fridays from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
I attempt to enjoy the rest of my weekend, without this hanging over me, and get back to it June 29, when I call Beyer's D.C. and Virginia offices for the fifth and sixth time, respectively, both of whom assure me that their passport worker is very competent and is working on it. They even offer to put me in touch with the person herself, which I decline for her sake. Next, I call the Netherlands Embassy in D.C. and wait on hold for approximately 30 minutes, which at this point was rather refreshing. The representative I spoke to told me there was "nothing that could substitute the passport requirement," as there are no alternatives to passports, and that this is "an internal affair for the U.S. to handle, the Dutch Embassy cannot request in this matter."
Read more: Your guide to vaccine passports
At this point, I feel there's really not much more I can do, so I continue on with my life and accept the reality that I will not be leaving the country anytime soon. As of this week, my passport is "in process," which means another potential three months of waiting, plus up to six weeks for shipping, because Philly to D.C. is apparently much further than I realized.
On July 12, three days after this story was published, NPIC emailed me back regarding my expedited service request I sent on June 24, informing me that I could request that my application be upgraded by completing a form and paying $60, plus another $17.56 for one-two day delivery. At this point, I feel like suggesting they pay me to end this whole ordeal, but I do as I am told and provide my credit card number in hopes that this brings me one step closer to victory. Bear in mind, this is simply a request, and I have no way of knowing whether or not my request has been filled until I am alerted by my bank of the new charge.
Two days later, on July 14, the State Department’s Passport Services office conveniently had a press briefing about this very subject, which I attended.
"We are surging staff, both adjudicators and contractors, back into the office at agencies across the country as COVID restrictions ease. But it will take time for our wait times to fall from the current 12 to 18 weeks to pre-pandemic levels," said Rachel Arndt, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Passport Services. "This means people who submit new passport applications right now will not get their new passport until well into the fall."
Regarding those who have tried and failed, like me, to get through to the Passport Information Center via phone, Arndt confirmed that "the call center, is experiencing just unprecedented call volumes for many of the same reasons that our wait times are increasing," and noted it is also being addressed by the aforementioned "hiring surge."
On July 16, I received an email from the State Department notifying me that my passport had shipped and that I should expect it within five days.
Four days later, on July 20, my apartment notified me of a USPS delivery at the front desk and I was pleasantly surprised to see a priority envelope from the U.S. Government containing my passport. In total, it took me 48 days, nearly seven weeks, door-to-door, to renew my passport.
Bottom line, the State Department is currently advising both passport applicants and renewals to submit their applications at least six months prior to planned travel, citing "mail delays (that) are impacting when we receive passport applications for processing," to which Arndt referenced "anecdotal evidence from when passport applicants have identified that they have submitted their application (via USPS) and when it is received at our processing or intake processing facility."
For reference, the typical processing time is four to six weeks. Routine service can take up to four-and-half months from the day you submit your application to the day you get it back. As a reminder, expedited service can take up to 12 weeks depending on mailing time and costs an additional $60.
A very limited number of appointments are available for both emergency and non-emergency travel within 72 hours, which you can find more details about here. If your U.S. passport expires this year or in early 2022, do not wait. And remember, some countries require that your passport be valid for at least six months beyond the dates of your trip. You are certainly not alone in your passport requests.
There is currently a backlog of roughly one-and-a-half million to two million passport applications.
"That is somewhat higher than what we would normally expect to see," said Arndt.
Read more: White House under increasing pressure on vaccine passports, but it’s complicated
In fiscal year 2020, the State Department issued 11,711,945 passports after receiving 11,533,128 passport applications.