A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting a Passport

If you’re a U.S. citizen traveling internationally for the first time, you absolutely must have a valid United States passport. Obtaining this document is neither simple nor fast. It’s a complicated procedure with very specific rules, and it takes a while. Because of this, we’ve put together a helpful step-by-step guide.

Step 1. Start About Three Months Before Your Trip

Obtaining a passport takes, on average, from four to ten weeks. However, it’s smart to begin the application process three to five months before your trip just in case you experience any complications. You don’t want to be worrying whether your passport will arrive in time, so it’s best to start early.

If you’re in a hurry or reading this with just a few weeks to go before take-off, there is an expedited method to getting a passport. We don’t advise it because it costs extra fees. If you need to use it, though, it’s good to know you have the option.

The United States government recommends using the expedited method if you have six weeks or less to go before travel time. Simply follow the steps below, and select the expedited option when you submit your forms. There will be an extra fee for overnight delivery of your application. You will also have to go to a specific facility when you take your materials in. See Step 5 for more information.

Be aware that certain violations of legal agreements mean that you won’t be able to apply for a passport. If you are behind on child support, for example, your application might be denied. It’s a good idea to make sure you’re abiding by all legal agreements before you apply.

Step 2. Get Your Documents Together

You need very specific documents to apply for a passport. Gather them together before filling out the application. You’ll need both Proof of Citizenship and Proof of Identity.

For Proof of Citizenship, you’ll need a birth certificate. If you were born in a country other than the United States, you’ll need either one of three possible documents: a Certificate of Citizenship, a Naturalization Certificate or a Consular Report of Birth Abroad.

You can establish Proof of Identity with a driver’s license, current official identification from the military or government or a Naturalization Certificate. All need is your photograph and your signature.

Note that all the identification for Proof of Citizenship and Proof of Identity must be current. You’ll need to have the originals, as photocopies are not accepted. If your driver’s license is for a state other than the one you’re applying in, you’ll need a form of secondary identification (see below).

If you don’t have one of these, you’ll need several forms of secondary identification. You will need two of the following options — a Social Security card, a library card or a credit card.

Step 3. Get a Passport Photo Taken

Passport photos are not a matter of simply getting a flattering picture and taking it in with your application form. The requirements are highly specific in regards to size and must be full-on headshots, never in profile.

Don’t try to take these yourself with a smartphone or in a booth. You don’t want your entire application rejected due to lack of an acceptable photograph!

The easiest way is to go to a place that advertises they take passport photos. Some United States Post Office locations do this, especially if they double as passport application locations. Retail drugstore chains and grocery chains with photo labs often do this as well.

Step 4. Fill out the Application Form

The standard form for first time passport applicants is a DS-11. To fill out the form, you’ll need to know your address, place of birth and your Social Security number. In fact, if you haven’t previously obtained a Social Security number, you’ll need to get one before filling in the application form. Like a driver’s license, it will ask your height, eye color and other identifying information.

You can access the form online or fill it in by hand. If you fill it out online, you need to print it out. For a first-time passport application, you can’t submit anything online.

Step 5. Take All the Materials in Person

First-time passport applications must always apply in person. Once you have one, you can often renew it by mail, but that’s not the case now.

Where do you go? There are several options:

To apply, you need to go to an acceptance facility, which is often a government office. The United States State Department provides a webpage where you can search by zip code for these facilities. Locations include post offices, public libraries and other state, county, township and municipal government offices. You will need to pay a passport application fee. Be sure to take enough money to pay it.

If you need an expedited passport, you must go to an official Passport Agency or Center. These require appointments as well. The State Department maintains a list here.

Step 6: Track the Status of Your Passport

When you apply, you’ll receive a tracking number and website on which to keep track of the status of your application.

It will likely take between five to seven business days for your application to show up. It’s a smart idea to track your status because if it doesn’t show up, you can notify the government.

Your first trip abroad is an exciting time! You’ll need a passport to do it. Getting a passport requires very specific steps and documentation, and completing the whole process can take months. Be sure to start early and follow all these steps.

Kayla Matthews is a wanderlusting blogger and senior writer at MakeUseOf. Her work has appeared in Afar Magazine, The Next Web, Houzz and Inman. Read her About.Me page here.