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Q&A: How to apply or renew your passport now

The government is processing passport applications again.

The government is processing passport applications again. Credit: iStock

While traveling abroad may still be a distant fantasy, you may be able to get your passport sorted in the meantime.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs went into lockdown as the United States braced for the impact of the coronavirus outbreak. With its offices across the country closed, the bureau was forced to stop processing passports and visas, except in extreme cases. Non-urgent applications piled up, and Americans waited while their passports languished in limbo.

But things are changing. After reopening in a limited capacity in mid-June, "passport processors are now chipping away at applications that have arrived since [March]," as The Washington Post reported last week.

Here's what you need to know about renewing or acquiring a passport now.

How do I renew my passport?

The State Department encourages people 16 years and older to renew passports by mail. A number of other passport services can be done by mail as well, including name and data changes and "applying for a passport card or book if the customer is already in possession of one or the other document," the State Department said.

To begin the passport renewal by mail, visit the State Department website's "Renew My Passport" page.

How can I get a new passport?

First-time applicants, and people under 16 years old, have to apply for passport in person. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to go to a dedicated passport agency. "They can apply at acceptance facilities which include post offices, clerk of courts, and libraries," the State Department said. Check whether your nearest acceptance facility is open and what services they provide during the pandemic by visiting this State Department website.

Applicants will have to fill out one of two forms, depending on which criteria matches their situation. Visit the State Department website's "Apply in Person" page to find out which form you need, as well as review which additional documents you'll need (proof of citizenship, photos, etc.).

What if it's an emergency?

In case of life-or-death emergencies, some people may need to visit passport agencies and centers to get a passport in the next 72 hours, or three business days, the State Department says. Those who visit a passport agency must wear cloth face coverings and follow social distancing measures throughout their visit.

"Life-or-death emergencies are serious illnesses, injuries, or deaths in your immediate family (parent, legal guardian, child, spouse, sibling, and grandparent) that require you to travel outside the United States within 72 hours (3 business days)," according to the State Department.

If you'd like help arranging an emergency passport service, consider using a service. David Alwadish, the founder of the ItsEasy Passport agency who has been in the business for 40 years, started processing emergency cases free as a way to give back while business was slow.

"I learned a lot about what the requirements were. I mean, my God, it was brutal," Alwadish says. "You literally almost had to be either dead or on your deathbed, but then you need a letter from a doctor, and I would help people get those."

How long will I have to wait to get my passport?

After holding almost 1.8 million applications for three months, the State Department says it's largely worked through its backlog.

"We now estimate most applications are being processed and returned to applicants within 10 weeks," a State Department official said in an email. "We look forward to reducing that processing time as we move more agencies and centers to Phase 3 of the Department of State's Diplomacy Strong plan."

Can I get an expedited passport?

At this time the State Department has temporarily suspended expedited passport processing for people unless there's a life-or-death emergency.

Alwadish says the State Department is still shunning general expedited passport applications - although some get through the cracks.

"I do notice that some of the expedites that have been sitting in the passport agency for quite a while have been getting done, but they'd truly rather not have the pressure [of an expedite] since they still have a backlog," Alwadish says.

How can I find out if the passport agency near me is open?

To find out what stage of reopening your nearest passport agency is in, visit the Passport Agency and Center. Additionally, the State Department says, "We will continue to post all updates to our website."

How much does it cost to get a passport?

Travelers can use the State Department fee calculator to determine the cost of their passport.

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