Always travel with a photocopy of your passport and other identification, such as a driver's license or birth certificate; this will make your situation much easier if (knock on wood) your passport disappears. (Photo: Ryan McVay, Getty Images)
Caroline Costello, SmarterTravel.com
The process of obtaining, renewing, or updating a passport is exactly what one would expect when working with a government agency: tedious, mind-numbing, and overly complex. While you'll find everything you need to know about the often befuddling process on the U.S. State Department website, we've made things a little simpler for you by breaking down the basics-from forms to fees to IDs-and providing helpful links to the appropriate forms and websites.
Getting your first passport
To get your first passport, you'll have to show up in person. Make an appointment at an acceptance facility or passport agency; search for the one closest to you here. You likely live near a facility where you can get a passport. Many post offices and even some public libraries can accept passport applications.
Arrive at your passport agency with:
• Your filled-in DS-11 application form.
• Evidence of U.S. citizenship. Find a list of acceptable documents here.
• Valid identification. Find a list of acceptable ID here.
• A photocopy of the front and back of the identification you're bringing on clean, white 8½" x 11" paper.
• Your application fee. For a first-time adult passport, the total fee is $135.
• Passport photos. You can read more about the specifications for passport photos here. But most major drug stores, such as Walgreens or CVS, will sell appropriately sized passport photos that comply with government standards; this makes things a little easier.
Renewing a passport
You have two options here: Either you have your old passport or you don't. If the former's true, you can apply through the mail as long as your most recent passport is undamaged, was issued when you were at least 16 years old, and isn't more than 15 years old. If you are nodding "yes" to all of that, simply mail in your old passport with the required documents and photos, and you'll receive a new one in the mail in roughly four to six weeks. (Don't worry. You'll get your old passport back.) Here's what you need: Form DS-82, your renewal fee ($110 for an adult), passport photos, and your old passport. Get more information about renewing a passport through the mail here.
Keep in mind that if you've changed your name since your last passport was issued, include an original certificate or court order that documents this; those without such papers must apply for a renewal in person.
Don't have your old passport? Then you can't get a passport renewed by mail. Head to a passport agency in person.
Lost or stolen passports
If your previous passport was lost or stolen, you'll have to apply for a new one in person. You'll need to bring two forms in this case: the standard DS-11 passport application and Form DS-64, which asks you to describe what happened to your little blue book.
Unfortunately, a replacement passport isn't free. You'll have to pay the standard application fee-$135-when applying for your new passport. Refer to the "Getting your first passport" section above; it lists everything else you'll need to bring with you, including passport photos and identification.
Remember to always report your passport as missing the moment you're sure it's gone. You can do this by calling 1-877-487-2778.
Lost or stolen passports abroad
First and foremost, be prepared! Always travel with a photocopy of your passport and other identification, such as a driver's license or birth certificate; this will make your situation much easier if (knock on wood) your passport disappears.
The State Department advises that American travelers get in touch with the closest U.S. embassy or consulate if they lose their passports while abroad. You'll have to go there in person to get a new passport in order to return home. In What to Do If You've Lost Your Bag, Wallet, Everything, Rick Steves writes, "A replacement passport costs $140 and can generally be issued within a few days, or faster if you make a good case that you need it right away. If you don't have the funds, the embassy will help you contact someone at home who can wire money directly to the embassy."
Adding pages to a passport
Do you require additional passport pages? If so, we're totally jealous. Beef up your blue book by mailing in Form DS-4085 along with your almost-full passport and the required $82 fee. According to the State Department, it's the right time to ask for more paper when you have two to four empty pages left in your passport. So keep a close eye on the status of your visa pages if you're an avid traveler.
Expediting a passport
You can get your passport expedited in roughly two to three weeks (door-to-door) via the State Department when you pay an extra $60 plus $12.85 for overnight delivery in addition to the standard processing fees. (Processing times can vary, so check the State Department site for the most up-to-date estimate.)
Need it sooner? Schedule an appointment to show up in person at a regional passport agency if you require a passport for travel within two weeks.
We don't normally recommend using passport expediting services, which sometimes charge hundreds of dollars to secure passports in as little as 24 hours, unless you're desperate. If you have enough time to get your passport directly through the traditional government channels, do it that way. It'll save you a ton of money.
You can check the status of a pending passport application here.
Changing your name on your passport
Good news: There's no fee for changing the name on your passport if your passport was issued less than a year ago. If the book's more than a year old, though, you must pay standard renewal fees.
To change your name, fill out the appropriate form (use Form DS-5504 if your current passport is less than a year old and Form DS-82 if your passport is more than a year old) and mail it with your current passport, original proof of name change, a passport photo, and renewal fees, if necessary. Read more about tweaking your name on your passport here. And congratulations on your new moniker.
Passports for kids
For children ages 15 and younger, the fees and requirements for getting a passport are a little different than those for adults. Essentially, parents need to provide identification in addition to proof that they are legal guardians for child applicants. Guardians in two-parent households must appear together with the young applicants or provide a notarized statement of consent from the absentee adult. Single parents must appear in person as well. And all parents must show proof of legal guardianship; this would include a birth certificate or a court order.
A passport for a minor costs $105. And the usual-Form DS-11, a standard passport photo, and the appropriate identification for parent(s) and child-must be brought to your local passport office. Read more about getting a passport for a child here.