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A few things you might not know about passports

I thought I knew everything there was to know about passports. Then in the midst of planning back-to-back overseas journeys, I stumbled across some regulations I’d never heard of before. The result was that I had to do some fast planning to get my passport in time, not to mention shelling out extra cash to expedite the process.

With new passport requirements going into effect at the end of the year and a general tightening of border security post 9/11, you don’t want to miss out on a pertinent detail of passport policy only to find out when it’s too late. To avoid being refused entry for lack of appropriate documentation, I encourage you to read the answers to the following questions about applying for a passport.

What are the new regulations?

If you’re used to traveling to Mexico, Canada, or the Caribbean with only a birth certificate, you’ve got some new rules to learn. The new Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative goes into effect on December 31, 2006; at that time, all U.S. citizens traveling by air or sea to or from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Bermuda will need to possess a valid passport. And on December 31, 2007, the initiative will be extended to include land border crossings to these countries as well. So, if you’re planning a Caribbean cruise or a ski trip to the Canadian Rockies next year, now’s the time to apply for a passport.

Do I need a passport for all overseas travel?

Actually, no. You will not need a passport for travel to U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa. For these areas, you may continue to use a driver’s license or birth certificate. However, a passport is always the preferred documentation for U.S. citizens traveling beyond the continental U.S. Also, if you plan on hopping from a U.S. territory to a foreign region, such as from the U.S. Virgin Islands to the British Virgin Islands, you will need a passport.

Can I use my passport until its stated expiration date?

Although an expiration date is clearly stamped on your passport, some countries do not abide by it. Several countries require that your passport be valid for a minimum of six months beyond the dates of your trip. These countries include Brazil, Ecuador, Indonesia, St. Lucia, and Tanzania, among others. For example, if your passport expires on December 1, 2006, and you want to travel in September, less than six months before the passport will expire, you should check whether you’ll need to renew your passport before your trip.

Where can I get a passport?

To apply for a passport for the first time, you must go in person to a “passport acceptance facility,” usually a post office, government office, or public library. You’ll need to provide two photographs of yourself, proof of U.S. citizenship, and a valid photo I.D. If you’re renewing your passport and are in possession of the expired passport, you can also apply by mail. For any type of application, you can find the forms online.

How much will it cost?

Your first passport will cost $97 if you’re age 16 or older, and $82 if you’re under 16. A renewed passport costs $67.

How long will it take?

The State Department website claims it takes six weeks to process a passport application. The peak time for passport processing is between January and July, so if you don’t want to wait, you should consider applying between August and December. When I went to renew my passport in December, I was told that the processing takes longer than six weeks when submitted prior to the winter holidays. So always leave a few weeks breathing room between the time you submit your passport and your travel dates, so your passport doesn’t arrive the day after you needed to leave.

If you don’t have six or more weeks to wait for a passport, you can request expedited service. For an additional $60, you can receive your passport in two weeks. You can apply for an expedited passport in the same way you apply for a regular passport; however, you can also request an expedited passport at one of the 13 regional passport agencies if you are traveling within 14 days. You must make an appointment to go to a regional agency; walk-ins are not allowed.

Where can I find out more information?

The State Department hosts an entire website dedicated to information about applying for passports, as well as the appropriate forms and a search engine to find a passport acceptance facility in your area. You can also find details about international travel and visa regulations. Or, you can call 877-4USA-PPT (877-487-2778) to request further information.

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