Have you checked the date on your passport recently? If not, go do it now! Think you have enough time before it expires? You might want to think again. We recently had our own very real experience with expedited passport renewal. Although it seemed like a no-brainer on the surface, it caused chaos in our world for 1.5 months. So… want to know what happened?
The US Passport
The US Passport is a powerful thing. While not ranked in the World Economic Forum’s Top 10 Most powerful passport list, it is still a thing of beauty. A US passport allows holders to travel to more than 180 countries, allows you to obtain assistance from US embassies overseas, and can even prove your citizenship. One generally lasts you 10 years and you can submit your application through a variety of processes.
Having passports has allowed us to visit over 30 countries so far. It was actually my goal to completely fill up my last passport, but the pandemic derailed those plans. Nonetheless, that book has always been filled with fond memories of adventure and exploration from years gone by.
In case you’ve missed the news this year, there has been major things happening with passport applications in the US right for several months. Like… major. As much as I hate to admit it, I was one of thousands and thousands who unknowingly got caught up in what feels like a total system meltdown earlier in the year. It almost ruined a major milestone trip. Luckily, after weeks filled with chaos, sleepless nights and nauseating anxiety, we made it out ok. I’m here to tell you what happened so you can avoid the same.
The Back Story
Because of the pandemic and ensuing disruptions the travel industry experienced, we spent all of 2020-2022 traveling domestically in the US. While different than our normal style, this put us in a position to place our passports in a safe place for some time and explore many places we had been putting off.
I was well aware that my passport would expire in October of 2023. I had several reminders to renew it around 5 to 6-months out. However, we excitedly booked a trip for the beginning of April 2023 that wouldn’t bring us back home until April the 8th. When I checked, I saw my passport’s exact expiration date was 10/3/2023. That is just 5 days under the 6-month validity window, which made me a touch nervous.
At first, we decided we would chance it and hope for the best. But, after reviewing the US Department of State’s website section about the short 3-5 week turn around on expedited passport renewals, we realized I was well within the timeframe require to take the guess work out of our trip and just renew it. I verified this with a local travel agent. Feeling good about the decision, I moved forward with the process.
Armed with this information, I set out for a local passport acceptance facility to submit for my expedited renewal. While the timeline they offered there was a bit longer than advertised on the website, it was still within the window I would need my new passport by. So, I filled out the application, took a new photo, and nervously handed over my current passport. I paid for priority mail to guarantee it would be delivered to the Philadelphia office by 6:00pm the next day, as well as upgraded to priority return mail. The worker at local passport office told me my passport would arrive between March 13th and 27th. Feeling relieved for getting this taken care of, I headed home and started anticipating our trip. I never could imagine the nerve-wracking weeks that would lie ahead.
Passport Status Website
After about a week had passed, I started checking the status of my passport renewal on their website. After all, my payment check had cleared our bank on February 10th. The website said, “Not Available” and that it could take up to two weeks for this information to populate. Fine. Around this same time, I also started doing some Google searches and found forums and posts on Reddit and Facebook. There, I got the sense that trouble might be brewing.
A few more weeks had gone by and I decided to check my status on the website again – “Not Available”. This made me uneasy, so I decided to call the customer service phone number provided. I don’t know how many times I called at first, but I never could get through. I tried sending an email to the address listed and it immediately bounced back a canned response to go to the website.
Finally, a banner message was added to the website. When I saw it, I realized there was some sort of error going on with their technology. Anyone who submitted their applications between February 6th (the day I submitted mine) and February 13th had gone into some sort of nebulous black hole. It had now been nearly a month since my application was received by the Department of State, so I decided to do what many others recommended from my Google searches. I tearfully reached out to my state’s Congresswoman.
Shortly after reaching out, I received a call. The aide asked me a few quick questions and asked for my locator number. I told her I didn’t have it – I didn’t have any information about my passport application because of this apparent tech issue/black hole that had happened. She said she would look into it and get back to me the following week.
Monday came around and I decided to check my status online again and finally, a different message appeared! This one indicate that my application was finally in process! But wait… the date listed immediately below said they received my application on March 4th. My heart sank! I had proof it was delivered on February 7th. What had they done with it for nearly a month?
Furthermore, the updated status indicated it would take 5-7 weeks from March 4th to process my application and get a new passport to me. Our trip was April 1st. Clearly this wouldn’t work. Since my application had finally been updated in their system, I also now had a locator number. Doing a little more digging, I realized my application had been sent from Philadelphia to New Hampshire.
Not one to let the grass grow under my feet, I reached out to two of our State Senators as well. The response I received from each office was slightly different, but they all assured me they would do the best they could to either get my passport on time or help me secure a same-day appointment at one of the US’s limited offices. The closest one to us is in another state. Yikes. For a few days after that, it was radio silence from the political side of things.
I spent my time scouring comments on threads regarding passport processing on the US Department of State – Consular Affairs Facebook page. The more I read, the more the situation seemed bleak. Hundreds of people wrote in about submitting their applications in late fall 2022 to no avail. I watched as people shared their stories of having to cancel trips, missing out on things like honeymoons, family reunions, and important medical procedures. I also saw hundreds of people sharing that they will be losing thousands of dollars. They wanted accountability and transparency from the US Department of State. Like myself, they followed the rules and were well within the estabilished timelines.
At this same time, I began to wonder if we would need to do an about face on our trip. We had a contingency plan to push everything back by one month if needed. Thankfully we have flexibility in our jobs and support from our family. It would have been some work, but we could have made-do.
Another week had started when I received an official email from the office of my Congresswoman, Harriet Hageman. It was good news! My passport was approved and would be printed and shipped soon. I was so happy and had such relief, I literally cried… again. Truth be told, I do not think I would have had this outcome had I not gotten my state’s politicians involved early!
I immediately hopped back online and saw my status had indeed been updated to “Approved”. A few hours later, my very OCD self checked again and saw the status had then been updated to “Shipped”. I was able to obtain my USPS tracking number at that time. Interestingly enough, my newly renewed passport was being shipped up from Tucson, Arizona (not New Hampshire where my application was sent after being received in Philadelphia). That sucker traveled more in the first quarter of this year than we have!
As soon as the approval came through, the rest of the process was quick. Now, it was just a matter of tracking the shipment, watching my mailbox, and finalizing the plans for our trip. We think I was one of the lucky ones in this whole process. However, I can’t help but reflect back on what went wrong. There’s a several system failures at work here.
One of the first thing that comes to mind here is poor communication. This is one the primary factors and could be seen in multiple areas.
Starting with the Passport Status Website, the system here had many flaws. The US Department of State directs everyone who submits applications by mail to check this site. However, the status updates they provide do not seem to be reliable. To prove my point, in a matter of one week my status went from: Not Available to In Process to Not Available to In Process, finally to Approved to Shipped, then immediately back to Approved. Had I have not been OCD enough to keep checking I never would have seen that it was approved via their site or gotten my USPS tracking number. I also signed up for email updates on this site multiple times and never received an email. Not once.
The phone number listed on their site is so inundated with calls that they do not answer. Oftentimes calls are dropped. The lucky ones who do get connected are said to experience hold times of up to 9 hours.
The response on social media was also lackluster and appeared to change as things progressed.
Staffing Issues and Demand
Many of the issues above are the direct result of ongoing staffing issues many employers are currently enduring. Somewhere along the line, I saw a statistic that they were receiving up to 500,000 passport applications per week. There have been a record number of passport applications submitted and the US Department of State simply does not have the manpower to meet the demand.
Not only are staffing and communication issues at fault, but there are also issues with technology. Clearly the status tracking website where people can track their mail in applications was not working correctly. There was also the black hole that everyone who applied in early February seemed to fall into. Beyond that, the Department of State had also been testing a new online renewal option. Truth be told, I orignially looked at this option, but I am so glad I went the mail-in route. The online renewal portal has been so problematic, they’ve actually shut it down for the time being to work on system issues.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t call attention to the role that people play in all these issues, myself included. I don’t want to point the finger at those who, like myself, followed the directions to a T and believed the guidance provided by the US Department of State. But, whenever people are involved, there is always a chance for something to go wrong. Afterall, to err is human.
Passports aren’t cheap. Luckily, they last long enough to offset some of the costs. A standard renewal on an adult passport book costs $130.00 and new photos cost about $15.00. To add expedited service is an additional $60.00. To ensure faster deliver, priority return shipping is $19.53. Priority delivery when sending off your application is about the same. All in, an expedited renewal on a passport book costs about $240.00.
Friend or Foe
I’ve been asking myself whether or not I think expedited passport renewal is friend or foe. Based on my recent experience, I have to say foe. Even though I pulled out all the stops and ended up being one of the fortunate ones, there were a lot of sleepless nights to get there.
So, what is your friend in this situation? Time. And… a lot of it. In the current state of things, processing timelines keep getting longer and longer. When I applied in early February, it was 3-5 weeks for expedited renewal. Now, not even two months later, it expedited renewals are taking 7-9 according the the US Department of State’s website.
Would I do expedited passport renewal again? Not based on this recent experience. So, if you are about a year out from your expiration date and do not have any international travel planned for the foreseeable future, go ahead and just renew it now. You’ll thank yourself later.