Have you ever had that experience at the DMV where you wait and wait and wait in line, only to get to the front and realize you are missing one piece of necessary paperwork, a signature, or proof of residence? Then even though you waited all this time, you have to start all over again?
Dealing with any government agency is not always a walk in the park. It never seems to be quick or easy.
If you are planning to travel out of the country with a child, you will need a valid U.S. passport. The passport process is also neither quick nor easy. But there are ways to minimize the stress.
One Step at a Time
First, you need to know where to look for the information. All the information can be found online, but for minors, the actual submission must be done in person. At first glance, it appears to be a daunting task.
But it’s necessary, so just take it one step at a time and power through. Be prepared to need a lot of specific information including social security numbers, parents’ driver’s license numbers or current passport numbers, and an original birth certificate.
Pro tip: Read every line of everything very, very carefully. This is official government business and errors will only slow down the process.
Gather Your Documents
Next, you need to gather your documents. Some documents require the original to be handed over to view and others require copies to be provided. You will need to have every single required item in hand before you even think about submitting anything.
One of the forms includes parental consent. If there are two names on the child’s birth certificate, both parents must be present at the appointment to sign the documents.
If there is only one parent or guardian for your child, or there is no way for both to make the appointment, additional documentation must be provided. Do yourself a big favor and check these items off in advance so you are ready.
Pro tip: Do not sign anything until you are in front of the passport agent! It’s like getting a document notarized, so if they don’t see you sign it, it didn’t happen.
Get an Acceptable Photo
Get the photo. The easy part, right? Not so fast, my friend. There are about a million rules for what constitutes an acceptable photo. It must be a recent, full-color shot on a plain white background. The picture is only a two-inch square, but the face must fill the majority of the space.
This is not so easy if you are working with little ones. If they aren’t at an age where they can sit still and keep their eyes open for a photo, try laying them down on a plain white sheet and taking the photo from above. Time to get creative, but no filters allowed.
Pro Tip: Just pay the money and get it done by a professional. Walgreens, CVS, or your local post office can do this for you for $10-$12.
Where to Go
You need to know where to go. Passport paperwork can be processed by many different state agencies. Post offices are the most common, but you can also try libraries, clerks of court offices, or other municipal buildings in your community.
There is a quick online directory where you can search by zip code to find the location nearest you.
Pro tip: Call and make an appointment! This saves a ton of wait time, and your child must be present, so the quicker the better. Children get antsy during long waits, and that will only add to your frustration.
Allow Enough Time
The general rule for passports is to allow six to eight weeks for processing. Once you submit all the paperwork, everything will come back to you in the mail. If something is filed incorrectly or the photo isn’t up to par, you will receive a letter in the mail and have to start over.
No one wants that.
There are exceptions to the processing time rule. If there is a travel emergency or other circumstance, you can visit an official passport agency and get it in as few as eight days. There are only a few of these in major hub cities around the country like Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, and San Diego.
Renewals are also a bit different. A passport for a minor lasts for five years. Once it expires, you can use the old one as proof when you go through the process to get a new one.
When a Birth Certificate Will Do
There are still a few circumstances for travel where a birth certificate is all a minor needs. Visits to U.S. territories in the Caribbean and Puerto Rico do not require a passport. If traveling by land, minors can access Canada and Mexico. But if travel is by air or boat, a valid passport is required for every single person.
These rules and regulations seem to change frequently, so do your research well in advance.
The bottom line when getting a passport is: allow yourself enough time and do the research. The best resource online is travel.state.gov. Use their simple step-by-step plan to get the right forms and ensure they are completed correctly.