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How to get a passport can be a lengthy and confusing process for first-time applicants, but never fear! Just follow the simple ste-p-by-step instructions below and you’ll be on your way to your first international vacation in no time. If you’re set on getting the information straight from the US government, click here. However, since you’re here, that’s probably not the case. I’ve done this process myself and have taken all the most important information from the official sources and simplified it for you.
This post is all about getting a passport for the first time. If you need to renew your passport, click here for less fun but very official instructions.
How to Get a Passport, Step One: Fill Out DS-11 Paperwork
We’re dealing with the government here, so you knew there would be paperwork! Start by filling out a two-page application, found here (scroll down to form DS-11, Application for a U.S. Passport). The application is technically six pages, but only two pages have actual questions for you to answer. The other four pages are basically rules and instructions.
- Fill out the application online and then print the entire document
- Once you’ve printed it, do not make any handwritten corrections. Any handwriting on the form will delay your application process.
- At the top of the application, check “US Passport Book” – that’s the regular blue passport that you’re familiar with. Don’t be fooled by the inferior passport card, which can only be used for land crossings. The passport card cannot be used for international air travel, so you don’t need it!
- Do not sign the application! This must be done in front of the federal employee who accepts your passport application or it will be considered invalid.
Once you get your passport, you could be hanging out in London!
How to Get a Passport, Step Two: Get Your Photo Taken
Getting your passport photo taken is a quick, inexpensive process that can probably be done at dozens of places throughout your city. The store employees are familiar with all the passport photo regulations (and there are MANY) and will ensure that your photo will be accepted by the US government before you leave.
If, for any reason, the federal employee who reviews your passport application before mailing it off says that your photo is not going to work, just go back to the same store with your receipt and they will do it again for free. This is probably not a very common scenario, but it did happen to me! Apparently I have a crooked head. Whatever.
You’re going to hate your photo, but don’t worry. We all do! Now you’re just part of the passport-photo-hating club. Once you have your photo in hand, staple it to the marked spot on your passport application.
There are a few major retailers who offer passport photos without an appointment:
This gorgeous beach in Aruba is just a short flight away now that you have a passport!
How to Get a Passport, Step Three: Collect Your Supporting Documents
Proof of Identity
Accepted documents include: your driver’s license or permit, state-issued ID, military ID, or Green Card. Basically any official, government-issued ID that includes a photo.
Proof of Citizenship
As passports can only be issued to citizens (non-US citizens, check with your home government to get one!), you will also need to provide proof of US citizenship. The easiest way to do this is via your birth certificate. You can use either your original or a certified copy (not a photocopy of the original). If you weren’t born in the US, you can use a Certificate of Naturalization or Certificate of Citizenship. For complicated situations, check the official guidelines.
Copies of Both Documents
In addition to the photo ID and original citizenship documents, you will need to make a photocopy of both documents and include this with your application. When you go to turn everything in, you will show the employee your original for verification but will actually submit the photocopy. The copies should be black-and-white, printed on 8.5 x 11 paper (regular letter paper), and should be completely legible.
Belize was my first international destination once I got my passport!
How to Get a Passport, Step Four: Get Your Money Ready
There are technically two separate fees due to get your passport on its way. For adult, first-time applicants, the official passport application fee is $110, which is sent to the government for the actual passport. There’s also a $35 processing fee paid to the post office/government office/etc. where you turn everything in. Both fees can be paid via personal check or money order, but make sure to get 2 separate checks!
Expediting a Passport Application
If you can’t wait the usual 4-6 weeks it takes to process a passport application, you will need to pay an additional $60 (this goes on the same check as the $110 – so $170 total!) to have it expedited. If you expedite your application, it will arrive within 2-3 weeks. If you need it even faster than that, add an extra $17.13 onto the fee going to the government for 1-2 day delivery. Note: This is just for faster delivery. The official processing timeline is still 2-3 weeks.
The year after I got my first passport, I took my first solo trip to Ecuador.
How to Get a Passport, Step Five: Submit Your Application!
You’re so close to being done! Now, all that’s left to do is to submit your application documents, which must be done in person. To find the closest passport acceptance stations near you, click here and enter your zip code. The most common place to go is your local post office, but not all locations offer passport services. To find one close to you, click here. Passport acceptance usually requires an appointment, and may only be offered during select hours. Make sure to check online before you just show up!
You did it! You’re all set to start exploring the world. I’m so excited for you!
Wouldn’t you rather be planning a trip to Paris right now?
How to Get a Passport, Step Six: Signing Up for Global Entry
Before you head out on your first international adventure, consider signing up for Global Entry. You may not know this, but once your plane lands back on US soil, it could take hours to actually leave the airport. Once you disembark the plane and collect your baggage, you must go through Customs before you can exit the airport. Especially in larger airports with multiple international flights landing at once, the line to get through Customs can take hours.
If you have Global Entry, however, you can skip the line and waltz right out of there! It’s totally worth it. Global Entry is a government-backed program that basically determines your belong here and are not a threat, and therefore allows you to breeze past the customs agents. Global Entry also includes TSA Pre-Check, which allows you to skip the regular airport security line and go to a special (read: shorter) line for TSA Pre-Check members. You will also get to leave your shoes on during security and don’t have to take your laptop out of your bag!
You won’t find this view without a passport!
How to Sign Up for Global Entry
Now that you’re convinced of the benefits of Global Entry, let’s get you signed up! First, create an account on the Trusted Traveler Program website to complete the online application and pay the $100 application fee. Your membership is good for five years. After your application is reviewed, you will be notified that you have been conditionally accepted. At that point, you will need to schedule an in-person interview at a Global Entry Enrollment Center, which is basically an airport. Click here to find your closest participating location.
Make sure to bring your passport (obviously, you will need to wait to do this until you actually receive your passport) and another form of ID (aka your driver’s license) to the interview. The interviewer, a federal agent, will verify your identity, take your picture and fingerprints, and ask you a few questions about past travel, etc. It’s all very quick and easy. Once your application is approved, you will receive your Global Entry card in the mail in about 7-10 days.
Now that you’re a member of Global Entry, look for the signs when you arrive in the customs area. You’ll generally go to a set of kiosks to scan your passport and then be on your merry way.
If you have any questions about the passport application process or Global Entry, leave a comment! I’m happy to help in any way I can. Bon voyage!