The first step in planning a trip abroad is not your plane tickets, not your accommodations, not your on-the-ground transportation. It's your passport, and this year it's even more important. We must prepare like it's 2007 again. Except that your eyeglasses won't be a problem. Read on.
We're hoping it's not like 2007 because that was the year that passport applications were like the rat through the boa constrictor: a huge bulge that took a long time to pass.
We turn to that year for the explanation — and what it portends for this summer.
The 9/11 commission and the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 called for more secure borders; better documentation for those entering the country was part of that.
Before then, if you were flying to, say, Mexico or Canada, you didn't need a passport. But that changed with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, phased in with the passport-if-traveling-by-air initiative in January 2007. (A second phase in 2009 required what U.S. Customs and Border Protection calls WHTI-compliant documents— passports, yes, but also passport cards, Trusted Traveler program cards and more.)
That January 2007 requirement created a crush of passport applications — about 18 million, or 50% more than the previous year — that spawned the Summer of Our Passport Discontent as travelers waited, sometimes in vain, for documents that were taking as many as 12 weeks to arrive, sometimes more.
Frantic readers called and wrote us. Some missed trips. Many ended up in the offices of their congressional representatives.
Fast forward 10 years. Those passports from 2007? They're expiring this year.
Another rat through the boa?
Probably not, said Kevin Brosnahan of the State Department. For one thing, the department, caught off-guard by the surge, has addressed many of its issues. It has more centers for processing documents and about 8,000 centers for acceptance of applications.
And, with a new regulation, perhaps fewer problems with what an applicant submits.
The passport photo is the problem child of delays, Brosnahan said, creating most of the issues that put a passport application in the "no-go" pile.
Many of those photo issues stem from glare off eyeglasses, he said.
A simple fix: Have people remove their eyeglasses for the picture.
The State Department also has been working with some of the larger outlets that take photos — pharmacies, for example — to help to ensure they produce the required results.
Some of the burden for getting your document also falls on you.
Don't wait until the last minute to check your document and ensure that it's good for your travel dates.
If you do need to renew, don't wait until the last minute to apply. (The State Department's website says six to eight weeks is common for the return of the passport, although it's often less than that.)
And, Brosnahan said, although your adult passport may be valid, your child's passport is good for only five years. So unless you're leaving the kids at home, make sure their documents are valid too.
Check www.travel.state.gov to see the passport requirements for your destination. For instance, some countries insist you have at least four or more blank pages in your passport book. Some require at least three and sometimes six months remaining on your passport until expiration.
If you haven't received your passport, there are new ways to get help.
In 2007, when readers were stymied, we often advised checking with field representatives for their congressional representative. You can still do that, Brosnahan said, but nowadays your first call should be to the National Passport Information Center at (877) 487-2778. You also can go to the State Department's website (www.lat.ms/passportstatus) to check the status of your application and register for email alerts.
The myriad details are what challenge travelers these days, I find. The State Department helps out with a checklist at www.lat.ms/travelchecklist
Not a bad place to start if you are hoping for a happy ending to your summer vacation abroad.
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