7 Tips to Apply for a USA Passport

US passport

Dreaming of holding a valid US passport with your face on it? Whether you’re due to renew your old travel document or looking to apply for the first time, you’re just 7 steps away from learning everything you need to know about getting your little blue booklet. Read on to find out how to apply, common mistakes to avoid and what to expect along the way.

Why Is It Important to Have a Passport?

If you ever want to step foot outside of the US — even if you’re just hopping over to nearby Canada or Mexico — you need a valid form of ID, and your driver’s license won’t cut it.

Your USA passport is the one and only reliable, universally-accepted identification document you can use to travel internationally.

Not planning a trip in the foreseeable future? It’s still a good idea to have one just in case. It stays valid for 10 years, but getting one takes 6 to 8 weeks or longer, and you never know when a last-minute surprise trip to Paris, Rome or Japan might come your way!

Plus, flying off to far-flung destinations isn’t the only reason to have a passport. It’s also a good back-up form of ID in case you ever lose your wallet, and you can use it as proof of US citizenship if needed at any time.

What Are the US Passport Requirements?

To be eligible, you must be a US citizen (through birth or naturalization) or a US national.

  • You are a US citizen by birth if:
    • You were born in one of the 50 United States or the District of Columbia.
    • You were born in Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, or the Northern Marianna Islands (in most cases).
    • You were born outside the US, but at least one of your parents is a US citizen (in most cases).
  • You are a US national if:
    • You are a native of American Samoa or Swain’s Island.

To get a US passport as an immigrant to this country, you must first go through the naturalization process to become a US citizen.

To apply for naturalization, you must:

  • Have had a Permanent Residence Card (Green Card) for at least 5 years, or at least 3 years if applying as the spouse of a US citizen.
  • Meet eligibility requirements, including the ability to read, write and speak basic English.
  • Complete the 10-step application process, which includes taking a test and attending an interview.

Once you become a naturalized US citizen, you can apply for your travel document and start traveling as an American.

Congratulations, you’ve come a long way! It seems like just yesterday that you applied for your US ESTA visa waiver to visit the United States. Then you got a Green Card, and now look at you: all ready to get your blue booklet.

Getting a US Passport for the First Time vs US Passport Renewal

When you apply, the documents you need to submit are slightly different depending on whether or not this is your first time applying.

How to Get Your First US Passport

You must apply in person. You need:

  • Application Form DS-11.
  • Proof of citizenship document (original and photocopy of front and back).
  • Accepted form of photo ID (original and photocopy of front and back).
  • Photo.
  • Payment.

How to Renew Your US Passport

You can apply by mail. You need:

  • Application form D-82.
  • Photo.
  • Payment.
  • Your last passport (original).
  • If you’ve changed your name, a copy of your marriage certificate or court order of your name change.

You can renew your current or expired travel document as long as:

  • It was issued on or after your 16th birthday.
  • It was issued less than 15 years ago.
  • It is not damaged (other than normal wear and tear).
  • It has not been lost or stolen.
  • It was issued in your name, or you have a legal document to show your legal name change.

If your current or expired booklet does not meet all of these requirements, you cannot apply for a renewal and must instead apply in person using the DS-11 form.

Now that you know the basic checklist of what you need for your application, let’s go over the details about each document and get you on your way.

US Passport Application Form

Whether you need the DS-11 or DS-82, there are 3 ways to complete your application form:

  • Fill out the application online and print it out.
  • Download the form, print it out and fill it in by hand.
  • Go to a local passport acceptance center to pick up a form and fill it out.

Keep in mind that while you can access the US passport application online, you cannot submit the form online.

For first-time applicants, it is super important that you do not sign the form until you are told to do so in front of the official at your appointment (more about that appointment later). On the other hand, renewal applicants do need to sign the form before submitting it by mail.

Wondering what’s included on the application form?

It’s pretty straightforward. It’s only 2 pages long, and it asks for basic information like your full name, birth date, place of birth, social security number, mailing address, height, hair color, eye color, etc. It also asks for your parents’ names at birth, so make sure you know how to spell your mother’s maiden name, if applicable. There’s also a place for your intended travel dates and an emergency contact.

The form comes with complete instructions, so you really can’t go wrong. Just make sure to read the guidelines carefully, including the part where it says to use black ink only.

USA Passport Photo Requirements

One of the most common reasons applications are rejected or delayed is because the photo submitted doesn’t meet the requirements. Don’t let this happen to you!

There are a few photo requirements that might surprise you, but most are no-brainers. Your picture must follow these guidelines:

  • Taken within the last 6 months.
  • Color photo on a plain white or off-white background.
  • Photo size 2 x 2 inches (51 x 51 mm).
  • Your head must measure between 1 – 1 3/8 inches (25 – 35 mm) from the bottom of the chin to the top of the head.
  • Clear image of full face, centered and facing toward camera, with neutral expression or natural smile and both eyes open.
  • No shadows on face or background.
  • No digital alterations to photo. (This includes taking out red-eye. If your eyes come out red, you must take another photo.)
  • No selfies and no photo filters.
  • High-resolution photo, not blurry, grainy or pixelated.
  • Printed on matte or glossy photo-quality paper.
  • Damaged photos are not acceptable. No creases, smudges, holes, etc.
  • No hats or head coverings.
    • Exceptions:
      • For religious purposes: you must submit a signed statement to explain that your hat or head covering is part of traditional religious attire worn continuously in public.
      • For medical purposes: you must submit a signed doctor’s statement to explain that the hat or head covering is used daily for medical purposes.
      • If you qualify for one of the exceptions, your full face must be visible and your hat or head covering must not cover your hairline or make shadows on your face.
  • No glasses. Even if you wear prescription lenses, you have to take them off for your passport photo.
    • It may sound strange, but this rule was made in 2016 because of all the photos that had to be rejected due to glare caused by glasses. However, it is possible to submit a signed doctor’s note if you cannot remove your glasses for medical reasons.
  • You must not wear headphones or wireless hands-free devices.
  • You cannot wear a uniform, clothing that looks like a uniform, or clothing with camouflage print.

US Passport Fees

Wondering how much this is going to cost you?

Before we hit you with the numbers, remember that your travel document will be valid for 10 years (5 years for children under 16), so you only have to shell out the big bucks once a decade. (Thailand’s beaches called, they say it’s worth it!)

With that in mind, here’s what you can expect to pay:

For first-time applicants:

  • Application fee: $110, paid to the US State Department.
  • Execution fee: $35, paid to the Acceptance Facility.
  • The 2 payments must be made separately.

For renewal applicants:

  • Application fee: $110, paid to the US State Department.

For children under 16:

  • Application fee: $80, paid to the US State Department.

If you’re in a hurry to get on the road, in certain cases you can choose to expedite your application for an additional fee.

All payments must be made by check or money order. If you are applying from outside the US, contact your local US embassy or consulate to confirm the acceptable payment methods.

How Do I Check My US Passport Status Once I Apply?

Before you run to check up on your application, you need to slow your roll and wait until 7 to 10 business days have passed. Then, you can check your status using one of two methods:

  • Call 1-877-484-2778.
  • Go to the Online Passport Status System website to sign up for email notifications about your status. That way, you’ll automatically get an email when your application is in process, approved or mailed.

Frequently Asked Questions

Now you know what’s what in terms of submitting your application, but you may still have some lingering questions about the ins and outs of getting your little blue booklet. No worries, we’ve got you covered!

Do I Need To Make an Appointment?

If you need to apply in person (this means you, first-time applicants, children under 16 and those who are not eligible for renewal), then yes, you must make an appointment.

To see where to get a USA passport appointment near you, go to the Acceptance Facility Search Page online and enter your zip code or city and state. You will see a list of facilities and their contact information so you can call and set up your appointment.

If you are applying from outside the US, contact your local US embassy or consulate for instructions.

What Is the US Passport Processing Time?

It usually takes 6 to 8 weeks to process your document, but it can take longer. It is possible to request expedited services in certain cases, but you must pay additional fees.

When Should I Apply for Renewal?

While you may be able to get away with eating cereal that’s past its expiration date (extra crunch factor!), traveling with an expired document is just not possible.

In fact, it’s recommended that you renew your passport about 9 months before it expires.

Why so early? Many countries require that you have at least 6 months’ validity on your travel document when you visit, and some airlines won’t let you board the plane if it expires in less than 6 months, regardless of where you’re going.

Do You Need a Passport to Fly Within the USA?

Beginning in October 2021, you won’t be able to fly inside the US with a regular driver’s license. Instead, you’ll need a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license, passport or another of the few types of TSA-approved IDs.

Many Americans are not aware of this new requirement, so make sure to check that you have a REAL ID, or bite the bullet and get a passport that will allow you to travel both within the United States and around the world.

What’s the Difference Between a Passport Book and a Passport Card?

When people say passport, they’re usually talking about the book. You can use it to go anywhere in the world, whether you’re traveling by air, land or sea. It’s a navy blue booklet with multiple pages.

On the other hand, the card version can only be used to travel to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, or Bermuda, and only if you’re traveling by land or sea. (If you’re taking an airplane, you can’t use the card.) This card fits in your wallet, and it’s less expensive.

I Got My Passport, Now What?

Find a pen, open your new blue booklet to the page with your photo, and sign on the signature line.

Then get thee to a scanner, or use your trusty smartphone to take a high-quality picture of the bio-data page. Make sure the image includes both the photo page and the page above with your signature. Save this digital file in a safe place just in case you should lose your travel document at any time. It’s also a good idea to make multiple paper copies and take them with you when you travel.

Now you can start dreaming of where in the world you want to go!