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What You Need To Know Before Applying for Your First U.S. Passport

An United States of America passport laying on a world map. Photo credit: Erik Fideor

For starters, it is good to know there are actually different kinds of passports that allow for varying kinds of travel. A passport card, for example, is a less expensive alternative that permits holders to travel across the United States’ borders to Mexico, Canada, Bermuda and The Caribbean. So, if you are only interested in a quick trip to Baja, a passport card may make more economic sense, because it only costs $30.

For those interested in venturing further, a passport book allows for all international travel – but be aware that some countries require visas for extended stays, so do your research first. A passport book costs $110 and can include additional pages if you intend on traveling frequently.

Both types of passports require four main elements for first-time applicants:

  1. A valid photo ID
  2. Proof of citizenship
  3. A passport-regulation picture
  4. A printed DS-11 form.

A driver’s license and birth certificate will work for the first two items, but be sure that you have an actual birth certificate and not just a receipt or other associated document that is the case with some states. It is also a good idea to keep a scanned copy of your birth certificate, as you will find that you have to send an original copy with your passport application form.

Arguably the most important, and time-consuming, part of applying is the DS-11 form. You must print and fill out your own DS-11 form before you arrive for your scheduled meeting at a post office. The form covers all sorts of personal background information: name, address and social security number. It is not difficult, but it takes time.

A good tip to know is that you do not have to fill out your intended destination. You may be asked about travel plans, but getting your passport just to have it available is perfectly acceptable.

As for your passport-regulation picture, you may request to have your photo taken during your scheduled application meeting at qualified post-offices (check online at usps.com), but other stores and retailers sometimes have qualified services.

A full list of guidelines is provided online on the US Department of State’s website. An important fact to know is that you can not wear glasses or a head covering unless you have a signed statement recognizing its religious or medical importance. Certain post offices can take the picture for you for $15 with the advantage that the picture will fit their guidelines exactly, simply request to take a photo with your application appointment.

At this point, you are nearly done once you have your photo ID, proof of citizenship, a printed and filled out DS-11 form and regulation picture you can pay for your application to be sent. Just know that the post office will not take cash for the fee, you must pay with a credit card, check or money order.

Assuming everything met their criteria, a couple of hours of preparation should lead to around a 15-minute appointment and almost no frustration. You can schedule an application appointment online to any qualified post office. Be sure to arrive early though, because you can be forced to reschedule if you show up late. In approximately 3-6 weeks, you will have your own key out of the country and beyond.

Whether your travels take you to Sweden or Saskatchewan, just know that a bit of preparation goes a long way and that applying for your first passport is not as hard as it sounds. Good luck and happy travels!

More information about US passports can be found at travel.state.gov and usps.com.