How to Get a U.S. Passport: What Do You Need to Apply?

The first passport stretches back to the Bible, when Persian King Artaxerxes issued a letter of protection for the prophet Nehemiah. Like a modern document it said that the bearer traveled under the king's protection and asked all other governments to extend safe passage.

Thousands of years later we still use fairly similar language. In U.S. passports the "Secretary of State… requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection."

Although today they're mostly identity documents, the passport was created as a statement of protection and allegiance. It says "he/she is one of ours. Act accordingly."

Of course, all that has relatively little impact. This language has always been chiefly a formality; closer to a letter of introduction than a legal enjoinder. Until the 20th century that was the main purpose of a passport. U.S. and European governments mostly issued them to officials and diplomats as diplomatic courtesies. Private citizens could, and often did, request one, but except during times of war you could cross most borders without papers.

Then came 1917.

"During World War I," writes the Smithsonian Magazine, "legislators (alongside European nations) passed emergency measures that demanded passports from everyone entering the country.  And after the war ended, the requirements never went away."

Today if you want to travel out of the country, even to Canada, you need that little blue book. Here's what you'll need to know to get one:

The Basics of Getting a Passport

Here's the quick-and-dirty.

To get a U.S. passport you'll need to show proof of citizenship and proof of identification. All of these documents must be either the original or a certified copy. You must bring both the primary document and a photocopy. Many people forget their photocopy and have to come back again. You will also need to produce one passport-sized (two-inch by two-inch), color photograph.

You can file for a passport either in person or by mail, depending on whether this is a first time passport, a renewal or a replacement. Each has a different form available through the State Department at this web page.

The best place to file for a passport in person is your local post office. Most, but not all, will process a passport request. You can search for the right branch at this website. Some other government offices also will process a passport application, and the State Department lists them at this search page.

To renew your passport by mail, you will have to package the required documents and fees and send them to a passport center based on your needs and location.

The passport service is self-funded, so you will have to pay a fee. That precise fee will depend on your specific needs.

Routine service takes six to eight weeks. Expedited service takes two to three.

For more information, you can contact the passport service by telephone at 877-487-2778 or via e-mail at NPIC@state.gov.

What Documents Will You Need?

To reiterate, all documents must be either the original or a certified copy and you must bring both the primary document and a photocopy. Do not risk having to start the process over again. You will also need to provide one color passport photo.

Proof of Citizenship

For proof of citizenship you can submit either primary evidence or secondary evidence.

Primary evidence of citizenship can include:

  • A valid, undamaged U.S. passport, even if expired. Valid simply means not rendered invalid through other means,
  • A complete U.S. birth certificate,
  • A certificate of citizenship or naturalization, or
  • A consular report of birth abroad.

Secondary evidence of citizenship can include:

  • A delayed birth certificate AND two early public records, or
  • A Letter of No Record from the registrar of the state of your birth AND two early public records, or one early private record and a birth affidavit.
  • An early public record is a document created in the first five years of your life that includes your full name, date of birth and place of birth. Examples include: baptism certificates, hospital birth records, U.S. census records, school records and doctor's files.
  • The State Department does not give specific guidance on the definition of an "early private record."

The State Department has additional, specific requirements for:

  • Natural citizens born abroad to citizen parents,
  • Citizens who acquired citizenship through a parent's naturalization, and
  • Citizens who acquired citizenship through adoption.

Those requirements are listed here.

Proof of Identity

For proof of identification you can submit either primary or secondary evidence. Note: If you are applying in person outside your state of residence you must bring one additional form of identification.

Primary evidence of identity must include a photograph and can include:

  • A valid, undamaged U.S. passport, even if expired. Valid simply means not rendered invalid through other means,
  • A government-issued, unexpired in-state driver's license, learner's permit or non-driver ID with photograph,
  • A certificate of naturalization or citizenship,
  • A government employee ID from the federal, state, city or county level,
  • A U.S. military or military dependent ID,
  • A current and valid foreign passport,
  • An Enhanced Tribal Card or a Native American tribal photo ID,
  • A green card or Mexican Consular ID, or
  • A Trusted Traveler ID, such as Global Entry or NEXUS.

Secondary evidence of identity must include at least two of the following:

  • An out-of-state driver's license or non-driver ID with photograph,
  • A learner's permit, temporary driver's license or temporary driver's permit without photograph,
  • An in-state, fully valid non-driver ID without a photograph,
  • A Social Security or Voter Registration card,
  • An employee work ID or student ID,
  • A school yearbook with identifiable photograph,
  • A Selective Service (draft) card,
  • A Medicare or other health card,
  • An expired driver's license of any kind, or
  • Form DS-71 for an Identifying Witness. This form is only available in person.

If you are in the process of changing sex, or if you have documents from before you completed your transition, you may have additional requirements. The State Department has additional instructions here.

Applicants will note that many of the citizenship and identification documents overlap. You should nevertheless bring one document for each category. That is, if you use your passport for proof of citizenship also make sure to bring a separate document for your proof of identification.

Finally, you must provide one passport photo. While many processing centers take passport photos for in-person applicants, many also do not. You are advised to bring a photograph with you. The photograph has many specific requirements listed here in full, but most significantly you cannot wear a hat, headphones, glasses or unusual clothing. Applicants who have medical or religious reasons for making an exception to these rules must provide documentation.

What Forms Will You Need to Fill Out?

Most applicants fill out one of two forms. All of the relevant documents are available at the State Department's website here. They are also available at your application center for anyone applying in person.

  • New or First Time Passport
  • Replacing a Lost Passport
  • Replacing a Passport More Than 15 Years Old
  • Applying For A Child Under 16
  • Changing the Sex Marker

Fill out Form DS-11. This is also the form you should use if no other form matches your needs.

This form must be submitted in person and cannot be mailed in.

  • Renewing an Adult's Passport By Mail
  • Changing The Name On A Passport

Fill out form DS-82.

Adults who have a passport more than one year old can typically change the name on their document through renewal. If, for some reason, your passport is more than one year old but you do not meet the requirements of DS-82, you should use form DS-11.

  • Changes or Corrections To A Passport
  • Changing The Name On A Passport

Fill out form DS-5504.

Adults who have a passport less than one year old can typically change the name on their document through correction. For more details on corrections or changing the name on your document, see the State Department's website here.

• To Report Your Passport Lost Or Stolen

Fill out form DS-64.

You will still need to apply for a new passport through form DS-11. This form makes you eligible for a new passport by letting the State Department invalidate your previous document.

Applying by Mail

You can renew your passport by mail if it meets all of the following requirements:

  • You are applying for a renewal, not a new document,
  • You submit it with your application (so it cannot be lost or stolen),
  • It is undamaged beyond normal wear and tear (no missing pages, holes or overt defacement),
  • It was issued when you were 16 years old or older,
  • It was issued within the last 15 years, and
  • It was issued in your current name or you can provide government documentation of name change through marriage certificate, divorce decree or court order.

You must live in either the United States or Canada to renew your passport by mail. All expatriates not resident in Canada must visit a U.S. embassy or consulate.

If you meet these requirements you should send your current passport, all required documents and either a check or money order for the passport fees to your appropriate office. The State Department runs different offices depending on where you apply from and if you need expedited service. The addresses are available here. Note that you can renew an expired passport by mail.

Do not bend or fold your documents. Use an envelope large enough to contain them flat. Send them through the United States Post Office or, from Canada, the Canada Post.

Applying in Person

If you do not meet all of the requirements for renewal by mail you must apply in person. This includes any of the following circumstances:

  • You are under 16,
  • You are applying for your first U.S. passport,
  • Your previous passport was issued when you were under 16,
  • Your previous passport was lost, stolen or damaged,
  • You live outside of the United States or Canada, or
  • Your previous passport was issued more than 15 years ago.

In this case, you should bring your current passport (if any), all required documents and either a check or money order for the passport fees to your passport office of choice. You should also print and bring the necessary forms. While the passport office should have what you need, there is no guarantee.

For most applicants, the nearest passport facility will be their local U.S. Post Office. You can find which offices accept passport applications through the Post Office's website here. Other government offices, such county and municipal clerks, may accept passport applications. To find the nearest service center near you, search at this web page.

The State Department also runs a series of Passport Agencies around the country. These offices are typically reserved for emergency expedited passports within two weeks or less. You can find a list of them at the State Department's website here. You will need to contact your local agency to make an appointment, as these offices do not accept walk-in applicants.

What Fees Are There?

Almost every applicant will have to pay a fee for their passport as this is a self-funded service.

For the application fee you will need to pay via check or money order made out to the "U.S. Department of State." In most cases you cannot use cash, debit cards or credit cards.

In-person applicants will also have to pay a $35 processing fee to their local facility. Payment methods for this fee are determined by the facility.

The exception to this is applicants who use a passport agency. These offices accept payment with check, money order, Visa or MasterCard or cash in exact change.

Individual applicants can calculate their specific fees at the State Department's website here. Standard application fees include:

  • Adult (16 or older), first time applicants: $110
  • Adult (16 or older), renewal applicants: $110
  • Child (under 16), applicants: $80
  • Expedited Service: $60

Expedited Service

Standard turnaround time for a passport is more than four to six weeks. In addition, the State Department has four different options for faster service depending on individual needs.

  • Standard Expedited Service

This takes less than four to six weeks. You don't need any special circumstances to request this service, and can do so in person or by mail.

  • Urgent Service

This takes less than two weeks. You must have travel plans within two weeks of your appointment, and can only apply for this service in person at a passport agency. Travelers are advised to make their appointment no less than three weeks prior to travel, but the appointment must take place within two weeks of travel.

This takes less than three days. You must have an emergency that requires travel within 72 hours of your appointment, and can only apply for this service in person at a passport agency. Examples of a qualifying emergency include serious illness, serious injury or death in the immediate family which require you to travel.

Note: These are the estimated times to receive your passport. The State Department has also provided information on passport processing times at this website. This may prove confusing to some readers. Your turnaround time includes estimated shipping time as well as processing time.

Private Services

Finally, a growing number of private companies offer their services to courier or expedite your passport application.

Using these services is generally inadvisable.

If you have special or unusual circumstances a passport service may be helpful to clarify case-specific questions. While the State Department has numerous points of contact, its agents are often overwhelmed and slow to respond. Post office workers, who are the point of contact for most applicants, rarely have specialized information about applications.

As a result if your situation is not addressed in this article (such as, for example, unusual parenting arrangements, criminal history or significant outstanding government debts), you may be well advised to seek out a passport service who can help you to navigate the State Department's system.

For all other applicants, a private service will almost certainly waste money. They cannot expedite your passport any faster than filing a standard request. They have no special relationships that can get you to the "head of the line," and cannot in any other way make your application a special priority. Any speed advantages they offer comes from reducing delivery time. You can do the same yourself by paying for express delivery and return service.

For DS-11 applicants, you will still have to go to a passport center or agency in person. You can pay for express return service.

The value of these services is in administrative overhead. They can answer your questions and help you to gather the correct documents. If you don't need help understanding your application, then avoid private services.

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