I live in a part of the country where I can see Canada from my house. Until a couple of years ago, that meant frequent trips across the border–for that good Chinese food place, for the better view of Niagara Falls, to go to bars where the legal drinking age is 19–without much of a hassle. You told the border guards your nation of citizenship, how long you planned to be gone, and you were on your way. But Bush-era policy changes in June 2009 had folks around here scrambling to get a U.S. passport or enhanced driver’s license so we could continue to visit our neighbors to the north, something we hadn’t had to worry about before. Whether you’re planning a trip to Canada, Mexico, or some further flung shore, here’s what you need to do to ensure you can cross the border–and get home again!–legally.
WHERE TO GO
The first thing you need to know is that if you’ve never been issued a U.S. passport before, you’ll have to apply in person. You also need to go in person if your previous passport was a youth passport (issued to those under the age of 15); your previous passport was lost, stolen, damaged, or issued more than fifteen years ago; or if your name has changed since your last passport was issued, and you don’t have the legal documents that go along with the process. If you’re renewing a recently expired passport, you can apply by mail. (More on that later.)
The good news for those of you who have to apply in person is that there are plenty of Passport Acceptance Facilities out there. You can enter your location at the State Department’s website to find out which location is nearest to you. Often, these will be places like post offices, county or city clerks’ offices, or special passport application centers.
WHAT TO DO TO GET A NEW PASSPORT
When you go to the Passport Acceptance Facility, you’ll need to bring a number of things with you.
(1) A completed Passport Application Form DS-11. You will have to include your social security number, and you should not sign and date it until the passport agent tells you to do so. You should fill out the rest of the information before you go, however.
(2) Proof of citizenship, which can include an original of your birth certificate (there are requirements for it to be valid, so please be careful), an old passport issued by the U.S. government, your naturalization certificate, or a consular report of your birth abroad. If you can’t produce any of these primary documents, there is a process for submitting multiple secondary sources.
(3) Proof of identity, like a driver’s license or other government-issued ID. Again, if you don’t have access to this type of ID, there is a process for using secondary sources.
(4) A photocopy of the documents you intend to use for 2 and 3.
(5) An acceptable passport photo, which you can have taken at most pharmacies or other stores that have a photo counter, such as Walgreens or Rite Aid. Some of the Passport Acceptance Facilities can take photos on site, but you’ll want to check beforehand to confirm, as your passport can’t be processed without it. There is a little box on the passport application form, but you should NOT staple the photo directly to the form if you’re applying in person.
(6) A check made out to the Department of State* for any applicable passport fees. The baseline cost is $135 for a regular passport, with processing fee, or $165 for a passport plus a passport card**; passports for minors are about $30 cheaper. You can expedite the process for a $60 additional fee, then have your new passport book overnighted to you for $12. It generally takes at least 4-6 weeks for a brand new passport, so if you’ve waited too long before an overseas trip before realizing you need a passport, this can be extremely helpful.
*As a note, if your application location is a county or city clerk’s office, they may ask that the check be made out to that municipality rather than the Department of State, so you may want to wait to fill out the check until you get to the point of service.
**The passport card can only be used for entrance to/return from Canada and Mexico by land, or Caribbean nations by sea; it is not valid for air travel. It can be useful if you live in a border region and travel frequently to either country and don’t want to carry your passport around with you all the time; otherwise, it’s not really worth the cost. If you do live in a northern border, you may be able to get an enhanced driver’s license from your state instead that can be used a lot like the passport card. More on that later.
TO RENEW AN EXPIRED (OR ABOUT-TO-BE-EXPIRED) PASSPORT
If you have a valid U.S. passport that is about to expire or expired within the last 15 years, you can apply for a renewal by mail. The process is very similar, but without the step of going in person to the application facility.
You will still need many of the documents as in the above section, with the caveat that your previous passport will serve for (2) and (3). Complete Passport Application Form DS-82 and staple your new passport photo to it on page 1 of of the form in the little box designated; there should be one staple in each corner, running parallel to the long sides of the page. It used to be that a passport renewal was cheaper than a brand new passport, but that is no longer the case. Then send the form (with photo), your old passport (the actual passport, not a copy!), and your check to the State Department to the National Passport Processing Center in Philadelphia listed on the instructions page of Form DS-82. You will need to put the documents in an envelope that will not require you to bend or fold them. Please note that if you’re renewing your passport through the expedited process, you’ll need to send it to a different P.O. Box.
Because you have to send your original passport, I highly recommend sending it using a method that allows you to track the package or requires signature upon receipt. U.S. Certified Mail is only an additional $2.95 and gave me significant peace of mind. Upon completion of the renewal process, the State Department will send you your new passport through the mail. In a separate package, they will also send your old passport with holes punched through to indicate it is no longer valid.
WHAT’S THIS ENHANCED DRIVER’S LICENSE THING?
I keep mentioning the enhanced driver’s license because it’s an option that a number of my family and friends have found useful, as they cross the Canadian border frequently but don’t really travel elsewhere outside the U.S. Michigan, New York, Vermont, and Washington all offer enhanced state driver’s licenses (as do British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec) that allow you to cross the Canadian border–or any other territories allowed with a passport card–by land or sea. These cards are RFID encoded, which means the Border Protection guards will use a radio frequency controller to retrieve information encoded on a chip in the card. (Users are encouraged to keep them in metallic sleeves when not at border crossings so that other people out there in the world with card readers can’t steal your information.)
The cost and process for applying for an enhanced driver’s license varies from state to state, but documents must comply with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. If you live in one of the four states that offer this option and want to know more, you can check out your state’s DMV website; find it here.
Happy and safe travels, everyone!