Here's everything you need to know about applying for your U.S. passport and traveling with it.
Your passport is a key that unlocks adventure. That's pretty powerful for a pocket-sized booklet. That kind of power requires jumping through a few hoops, though. Applying for or renewing a passport can be a bit tedious, but it's not complicated. Here's what you need to know before you dive into the process.
How to Apply for a Passport
Whether you're getting your first passport or renewing one, you'll need the appropriate documents and forms to fill out. The exact documents you'll need depend on the form that fits your situation, so refer to the U.S. State Department website for information about and a link to each form.
New passport applications require proof of citizenship and a valid form of ID (originals and photocopies of the front and back), passport photos (AAA Members can get photos taken at any AAA Branch), a completed passport application, and passport fees. Don't submit a selfie; there are very specific guidelines for passport photos. Leave your application unsigned; your signature must be witnessed during your in-person application process.
Children under age 16 must have permission from both parents/guardians to apply for a passport, and the adults must provide proof of their parental status (such as the child's birth certificate or an adoption decree). The easiest way to ensure parental permission is for both to go with the child to apply.
Bring all the necessary items to a local acceptance facility. These are often post offices and sometimes libraries, and city or county offices, but call ahead or check online to find out which nearby locations take passport applications. Some require appointments, have restricted days/hours for passport applications, or accept limited forms of payment.
Passport renewals require the appropriate application form and passport photos, but the only necessary supporting document is your expired passport. After completing and signing your application, mail it to the U.S. State Department with your expired passport, photos, and fees. Use an envelope large enough that nothing needs to be folded, and it is advised that you use a mailing service with delivery tracking.
It's best to handle passport applications well in advance of any international travel, as the process can take four to six weeks. If you're traveling within two to three weeks, you can expedite the process for an additional fee. For departures within two weeks, you'll need to make an appointment at a State Department passport agency.
How to Maintain Your Passport
Once you've got your passport, your priority is keeping it safe and in good shape. The name of the game here is security, whether you're at home or traveling.
Make a copy of your passport's important pages—the ones with your photo, passport number, and signature. Email a digital copy to yourself or upload it to password-protected cloud storage, so you can access it from anywhere.
Store your physical passport in a safe place. Small, fire-proof safes are inexpensive, or consider a safety deposit box at your bank.
Set a calendar reminder at least six months before your passport's expiration date to be proactive about renewing it. This is especially important since some countries require passports to have several months of validity after a trip's end date to allow entry.
When traveling, stash a physical photocopy of the important pages in a different pocket of your carry-on bag than the original passport; sometimes it's easier to have a paper copy than to find the digital copy. While you're at it, stash copies in a few places in your luggage. It can't hurt.
Store your passport in the hotel safe or keep it with you in a money belt worn underneath your clothing. Some countries require you to hand over passports when checking into hotels and may need to keep them overnight. Do your research in advance so you know if this might happen, lest you jump to alarming conclusions.
Get ready to renew or apply for a new passport with AAA. Passport photos are available at any branch.
This article was first published in winter 2017. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.