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Red, White & Passport BLUES

Don't let passport processing delays sink your cruise plans

by Linda Coffman

June 2007 When my husband Mel sent his passport in for renewal back on March 19th we had no immediate travel plans. It just needed to be done because the passport was set to expire in eight months. Many countries require that tourists' passports not expire for two to six months from the time they either enter or leave the country. Mel wouldn't have enough time remaining on his passport if we did decide to take a trip. So, trusting the system, Mel mailed his application, new photos, and fee along with his old passport for renewal.

The Problem
It wasn't widely known back in March that the State Department was falling desperately behind in passport processing... sure, it was clearly announced that new regulations were imposed in January 2007 requiring US citizens to have passports for air travel to places like Canada and Mexico, where only a birth certificate and government-issues picture ID were previously required. However, that's no excuse for what has transpired. 

As applications flooded in, passport processing centers were "overwhelmed" by the "unprecedented" demand. Let's examine the situation—new passport requirements resulted in millions of applications and the State Department was unprepared to process them in a timely fashion. Didn't they expect the demand? Why were they so surprised and, dare I say it, unprepared? Is that acceptable government service?

Good questions. Although we probably won't receive satisfactory answers, for the time being (through September 30, 2007), US citizens traveling to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda who have applied for, but not yet received, passports can temporarily enter and depart the United States by air without a passport. To do so, US citizens MUST HAVE a government issued photo identification and Department of State official proof of application for a passport (obtain proof of application at: 

Well, that's fine, but what about travelers headed to Europe and elsewhere who need those passports? Like Mel now needs his! Will their dream travel plans become nightmares?

Passport Purgatory
While we had no imminent travel plans back in March, we decided an opportunity to cruise in the Baltic this summer was just too good to pass up and began making plans in May. Yes, we realized Mel's renewed passport hadn't shown up, but it had been eight weeks since the application was mailed and seven weeks since the check cleared the bank the first week in April. That was plenty of time, right? The State Department estimated that ten weeks was the expected processing time. With that as a guideline, we anticipated it would be in the mailbox any day. 

Our concern grew after speaking to my colleague Anita Potter who related, "It took me five weeks just to get extra pages in February." Her husband, a pilot for a major US airline, "couldn't fly International trips because he was renewing his at the same time as mineit took him eight weeks."

Where did that leave us? With delays mounting, the new "estimate" for Mel's passport had lengthened from ten weeks to 12-14 weeks. That would cut it dangerously close to our planned departure date. We hadn't paid the $60 fee to expedite the process because we didn't need to... IF the system were working properly.

As a proactive measure, I placed a call to Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss' office for assistance. His aide requested our travel date and promised to phone it in to the passport processing center; however, she could not request special handling until two weeks prior to our departure. Just a few days later, the Senator's aide called back to update us. The travel date was called in and all we could do was wait.

Happily, we didn't have to follow up to request further expediting... Mel's passport arrived June 13th. It took 12 weeks from the date the application was mailed until it was issued. Was it speeded along by the Senator's office? Perhaps the prodding helped, but we'll never know. I feel badly if other applicants were delayed even further because of our request.

Don't Put Off Your Passport Application
From personal experience, the anxiety isn't worth it. While online comments from rather smug passport-holders suggest that first-time applicants are somehow at fault for not getting theirs sooner, that is simply not the case. 

We are hardly inexperienced travelers. Mel's renewal was his third and it has never taken so long in the past. It shouldn't today.

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