Plan ahead — way ahead — for your passport

People wait in line outside a U.S. passport office in Philadelphia. Officials have scaled back new security rules in response to complaints as the waiting time for passports soared from around six weeks to more than three months, delaying or ruining the travel plans of thousands of Americans.
People wait in line outside a U.S. passport office in Philadelphia. Officials have scaled back new security rules in response to complaints as the waiting time for passports soared from around six weeks to more than three months, delaying or ruining the travel plans of thousands of Americans. Matt Rourke / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Need a passport in a hurry? Good luck!

You can pay extra for expedited service from the State Department, but there are no guarantees. You can ask for an appointment at a passport center, but you may not get one. You can ask your congressman to intervene. Or you can hire a private expediter.

Whatever you do, the experience may leave you bitter.

"The last few months have been the most expensive, the most frustrating and the most nerve-racking time that I've had in my life," said James Meehan, 21, a University of Southern California student who spent hours on the phone and hours at the federal building in Los Angeles trying to get the passport he applied for in May for a trip to Brazil in July. It didn't arrive in time, so he also had to pay to change his tickets.

"There's nobody to help and there's nobody to care," Meehan said. "You really do not have a voice. After all the problems I faced, who am I going to call? President Bush? The Better Business Bureau? I can't take my service elsewhere. It's not like canceling a cell phone."

The six-week process for obtaining a passport ballooned to 12 weeks when new regulations were imposed in January requiring passports for air travel from Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. Last month those rules were relaxed. Now Americans returning from those countries only need a receipt showing they applied for a passport.

But a backlog in processing passports remains. Here are options for desperate travelers, with anecdotes about how well they work.

  • You can pay $60 plus overnight delivery fees for expedited service from the State Department. "The process can generally be completed in about two to three weeks," said Ann Barrett, deputy assistant secretary of state for passport services.

Maura Harty, assistant secretary of consular affairs, said that "we regularly provide passports in one day or, in some cases, the same day, for travelers with urgent needs," including "life-and-death emergencies."

For leisure travel, Jessica Labaire of TNT Vacations in Boston said the expedited service "often works, but in many cases, it has not worked. It's been completely sporadic." Many TNT customers canceled trips this year when passports did not arrive in time. "We estimate a 10 to 20 percent loss in business because of this," she said.

Jacqueline Hahey, 25, of Scottsdale, Ariz., applied for an expedited passport in May and got it in a week, in time for a trip to Costa Rica. "I"d just heard so many horrible stories, I almost fell over when it arrived at my door," she said. "But it's really so random - it's the luck of the draw."

  • You can try getting help or an appointment by phone. "We encourage applicants seeking expedited service to contact us first for an appointment. Depending on the situation, we may be able to provide expedited service without having them come to a passport office," said Barrett.

But getting through isn't easy. "After 10 to 15 minutes of dead silence on the phone, you get a recording that says, 'We're sorry, there are no appointments available.' Then they hang up on you," said Meehan.

Amy Pennar, 22, of Tempe, Ariz., applied for a passport 14 weeks before her June 2 wedding in Poland. She panicked when it hadn't arrived by mid-May.

"I'm frantically calling every day, but it would take two hours to get through, and so many people are on hold, it just hangs up on you," said Pennar.

  • You can contact your congressional representative.

With help from Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Pennar got her passport, and made it to the church in Krakow on time.

"We've had well over 200 cases in just the past two months," said Flake spokesman Matt Specht.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who called the passport backlog "outrageous, incomprehensible, unconscionable" at a July 11 congressional hearing, has helped 100 constituents with passport problems.

Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., has helped 240 families, including Matt Stuart. When Stuart's passport hadn't arrived 15 weeks after applying, his fiancee' got 200 people to e-mail Sarbanes with the subject line, "Save Matt Stuart's honeymoon!"

Sarbanes' staff got a July 17 appointment for Stuart at a passport office, and he hopes to get the passport in time for a July 19 departure for Venice.

"Otherwise we'll be honeymooning in Ocean City, Maryland," said the bride, Crystalyn Thienpont, who directs "word-of-mouth services" at MGH Advertising in Owings Mills, Md.

"I'm glad that we could help the honeymooners - which we obviously would have done regardless of the e-mails," Sarbanes said.

  • You can pay a private expediter. Some 200 private companies are authorized by the State Department to obtain passports on behalf of others, according to Robert Smith, director of the National Association of Passport and Visa Services. NAPVS represents 20 of the largest expediters, handling hundreds of thousands of passport applications a year.

Each company is allotted a quota of daily appointments at passport offices. But they can't fish your passport out of the bureaucracy if you've already applied, unless you cancel your original application and start the process over.

Demand for expediting services has increased, but the number of applications individual expediters are allowed to submit has decreased, Smith said.

"Every day we're turning away people," said Smith. "We're not able to serve everyone who's looking for help."

CIBT Inc., the nation's largest expediter with offices in seven cities, charges $174 to get a passport in four days or more, and $254 for a "super-rush emergency," said spokesman Steven Diehl. "We've seen a 50 percent increase in passport work during the first six months of 2007, and we've nearly doubled our call volume."

CIBT deals mostly with tour operators and corporate clients, but has been able to accommodate most requests from the public, Diehl said.

The State Department expects nearly 18 million passport applications this year, up from 12.1 million last year. The agency hired extra staff and ordered diplomats home with a goal of "reducing passport turnaround time to normal levels by the end of the year," said Harty. "The passport situation is a top priority at the State Department, and we are devoting resources and personnel to getting back on track."