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How to Renew Your Passport During the Coronavirus Backlog

by Billie Cohen | September 8, 2020

 

UPDATE: The State Department says it is currently taking about 10 weeks to process a passport, from application to delivery in the mail.

If you are one of the 1.7 million Americans waiting for a passport now, you may feel frustrated. The U.S. State Department closed many of its offices on March 19 as part of the lockdown effort to protect workers. As of September 8, the department has partially reopened 26 offices and has started tackling the backlog that has been piling up, but delays are still long and expedited services are still suspended.

The very limited staff is processing applications on a first-submitted, first-served basis, meaning that if you sent your paperwork in March, you should get your passport before someone who submitted their paperwork in August. But you’ll both have to wait a lot longer than in pre-Covid times. The only exception is for life-or-death emergencies, and those are the only in-person appointments the passport offices are currently accommodating.

Considering that normal, pre-Covid processing time for passports was about two months, and that passport offices have been shut down for five, it seems reasonable to expect that it could take six to seven months for an application to be turned around (though we’ve heard about a wide variety of wait times from travelers; let us know your own experience in the comments below).

Here’s what you need to know now about getting or renewing a passport.

Can I apply for a passport or renewal now?

Yes. All applications and renewals were suspended for the first several months of the pandemic, but as of late August, a handful of offices are partially reopened so that the State Department can resume its work.

Passport offices are coming back to work in three phases. Currently, there are 11 passport agencies and centers in Phase 2 and 15 in Phase 1. There are none in Phase 3, and there is no timeline for when any will be.

  • Phase 1: limited staffing; applications processed on a first-in, first-out basis; in-person appointments for life-and-death emergencies only; applicants are advised to wait to submit
  • Phase 2: additional staffing; applications processed on a first-in, first-out basis; in-person appointments for life-and-death emergencies only
  • Phase 3: all staff return; limited appointments for those traveling within two weeks; applications processed on a first-in, first-out basis

This means that, as of right now, you can only mail in your documents or drop them at an acceptance facility (search here for one close to you). Make sure you have all the required paperwork, documents, photos, and fees, whether you are applying for a renewal or a first-time passport.

How long will I have to wait?

The department is publicly sharing stats on its progress every Thursday. For example, in the week of August 13 through 19, they received 143,000 applications, issued 209,000, and still have 923,000 left to get through. (For context, in 2019, the State Department processed 20 million passports, which is a little less than 400,000 per week.)

So, unless you need the passport due to a life-or-death emergency, you can expect long delays. Life-or-death emergencies are defined by the State Department as “serious illnesses, injuries, or deaths in your immediate family (parent, legal guardian, child, spouse, sibling, and grandparent) that require you to travel outside the United States within 72 hours (3 business days).”

Can I pay to expedite it?

The State Department has suspended its expedited service at this time, so there’s no fast track for anyone (other than in the life-or-death emergencies mentioned above). The official expedited service will only resume in Phase 3 of the passport agencies’ reopening plan.

What about using a third-party expediting service?

Unfortunately, they can’t help. Since the State Department’s official expedited fast track is shut down for now, private expediter services (a.k.a. courier services) can’t use them either.

As the State Department points out in an FAQ, even in normal times, these companies can’t actually turn around passports any faster than if you apply in person yourself. Instead, the benefit of using one is that they physically wait at an office for you—a perk that’s moot for now, since passport offices aren’t allowing in-person appointments.

As Valentina Meehan, president of Passport Plus, explains, “When you go, you have to make an appointment, have booked tickets to show imminent travel, and you will spend all day there waiting for the passport to get done. We take that out of the equation, we help prepare the paperwork and make sure there are no mistakes, and then a courier goes to the agency and submits the paperwork on your behalf. Every morning we drop off the applications, and every afternoon we pick up the passports.” Ms. Meehan acknowledges that if you did choose to spend the day waiting at the passport office yourself and paid for the fast-track service, you would likely get your passport the same day too. The difference her type of companies offer is the removal of stress and bureaucracy. (Fees ranges from $150 to $450 at Passport Plus, depending on turnaround time.)

So should I submit my application now, or wait until Phase 3 so I can expedite?

If your passport has expired or is about to, it’s a good idea to send in your renewal packet now and claim your spot. We’ve heard varying reports from travelers who’ve submitted their applications, and the return times vary greatly. You could get lucky.

As for waiting until Phase 3 and then expediting, it’s a gamble. There is no announced timeline for when this service will become available again, or when passport centers will move into Phase 3.

If I submit my renewal application now, could I bump my application up to expedited status when that becomes available again?

I called the National Passport Information Center to ask that question, and the representative I spoke to said yes: I can watch the official website, and when I see Phase 3 announced, I can call the National Passport Office at 1-877-487-2778 and, if the option is available, a representative can take my credit card info.

Skeptical, I asked Ms. Meehan from Passport Plus if, based on her 20 years of experience, she had seen this kind of switch work in the past and if she thinks it could work now. “Hopefully,” was her answer. “Does it happen 100% of the time smoothly? No. Most of the time it’s a mess because it’s in the middle of the process,” she said. “You have to realize that there’s maybe a million applications in the same boat. So will there be a little bit of craziness? Yes. Could it go smoothly for some people? Yes.”

Check the State Department website for the latest information on passport applications, offices, and services. You can check the status of your application online or call the National Passport Information Center at 1-877-487-2778.

 

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