Making sure your papers are in order

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Confused about passports? With shifting reports, rules and regulations, more than a few travelers remain befuddled. And with a backlog of at least 2 million passport applications, federal officials are not faring much better.

The State Department estimates that the number of Americans seeking passports this year will reach 17.5 million, up from 12 million in 2005 -- the result of new rules requiring such documentation for air travelers returning from Mexico, Canada, Bermuda and the Caribbean. Applicants' average wait time has swelled from six weeks to 12 weeks or more.

Here's what you need to know about these vital travel documents. The newest policies were announced June 7, and some details weren't clear. The most complete information is at the State Department's Web site, travel.state.gov. Click on "Passports for U.S. Citizens."

Does the United States require a passport to visit Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean or Bermuda?

If you plan to fly to these destinations, you must apply for a passport before you leave and you must be able to present an online receipt from the State Department proving that you applied, plus a government-issued photo ID, such as a driver's license. These documents are required to re-enter the United States through Sept. 30.

If you're flying to Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean or Bermuda after Sept. 30, you must have a passport in hand. If you're driving or taking a cruise there, you won't need a passport until at least January. The exact date hasn't been determined.

A big caveat: Although the United States is waiving some passport requirements, the countries involved make their own entry rules. Many still require proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate, to enter. So you will need to present that document, too. Need it quick? You can order an additional copy of your birth certificate for a fee, of course, through an outfit called vitalchek.com, which bills itself as an "express certificate service."

Do I still need a passport to visit foreign destinations other than Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda?

Yes. These rules haven't changed. A tip: Be sure your passport expiration date is at least six months after you plan to travel. That's because some countries won't let you enter or give you a visa if less than six months remain on your passport.

Do I need a passport to travel to or return from a U.S. territory, such as Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands or Guam?

No. Those rules haven't changed.

How do I apply for a passport, and how much does it cost?

In general, if it's your first passport or your old one has expired and was issued more than 15 years ago, you'll need to apply in person at a post office, public library or other government office authorized to receive applications.

There are thousands of these places, searchable by ZIP Code on travel.state.gov. Don't go to a regional passport agency; these deal with last-minute requests and other emergencies and can be visited by appointment only.

Besides filling out an application form, which you can download from the Web site, you must bring a government-issued photo ID; a birth certificate or other proof of U.S. citizenship; two current photos; and the required fee.

If you need only to renew your passport, you don't have to appear in person; you can complete this process by mail.

Fees are $97 for your first passport and $67 for renewals. Passports are good for 10 years.

Different rules and fees apply for children. See the Web site for details.

How long does it take to get a passport?

In its latest posting, the State Department says that because of a surge in applications, it can take up to 12 weeks. Some postal employees and travel agents suggest allowing 16 weeks or more.

Can I do anything to speed things up?

Maybe. For $60 more, you can request "expedited service," which the State Department says will get the passport to you in two or three weeks. However, with the current backup, readers have reported longer waits.

Another option is to use a private expediting service. This isn't cheap -- it can cost $100 or more, plus the government's expediting fee -- and it's no guarantee. But these companies have standing appointments at passport agencies, which gives them a better shot.

One way to find an expediter is to visit napvs.org, the Web site of the National Association of Passport & Visa Services. The Web site links to its members.

How do I check the status of my application?

You can do this online at the State Department's Web site. But it may take up to four weeks for the information to become trackable, the department says. Some readers have complained that it is inaccurate or doesn't show up at all.

You can also send an e-mail, but responses may take several days.

What should I do if I'm due to leave for my trip within two weeks and I don't have my passport?

You have a problem, and it's not easy to solve, unless you can take advantage of the temporary passport waiver for Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean or Bermuda (see above).

Otherwise, the State Department advises that you call for an appointment at a regional passport agency. There are 14 in the United States, including Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The toll-free number is 877-487-2778. Despite adding capacity and staff, the line is overloaded, with reports of lengthy waits.

As a last resort, some travelers say they have been helped by their local congressman. Congressmen get a special phone line into the passport agency, and they typically have close working relationships with the local passport office.

Jane Engle writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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