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Ask the Traveler: Any tips for renewing my passport?

First, kudos for keeping track of your passport’s expiry date. A surprising number of people don’t, or they forget that, for many countries, a passport must be valid for at least 6 months after the planned travel dates.

And second, I feel for you. Under the best circumstances, dropping a passport into the mail can be nerve-racking. And these are certainly not the best circumstances.

As COVID restrictions lifted, the U.S. State Department saw record-breaking demand for passports and didn’t have enough staff to keep up. In recent months, officials twice extended processing times to a 13-week max for standard renewals and a 9-week max for the expedited kind. The processing time does not include the time the passport is en route in the mail.

“It’s going to be a slow-moving problem until they can better process passports or staff up to run through this queue,” says Charlie Cobb, chief operating officer of Expedited Travel, a tech-enabled customer travel solutions company that works with AAA to expedite passport renewals.

In the meantime, there aren’t any easy ways around the issue—just the long way, the pricey way, and the crafty way.

The first requires planning and patience. The State Department recommends travelers who need to renew their passports do so “as far ahead of their travel dates as possible.” Paying an additional $80 for the combined expedited process and priority shipping will save you a few weeks. Demand tends to be lowest from October through December.

Third-party services like Expedited Travel’s Rush My Passport can zip your application through in as little as a week or two, Cobb says, but it will cost you. The 2-week service clocks in at $699 (or less for AAA members) plus government fees, and it’s best suited for those with urgent travel needs. Free alternatives for last-minute renewals include trying for limited in-person appointments and/or reaching out to your congressperson for help.

And finally, crafty travelers can work around the system, if they have the flexibility. Overseas territories like Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands don’t require passports. Likewise, cruisers leaving from and returning to U.S. ports don’t technically need passports, though operators may still require them.

And you can, counter to State Department recommendations, visit a surprising number of countries with less than 6 months validity left, including Europe’s Schengen Area. Just be sure your airline is okay with it.

In short, it takes time, money, or flexibility to renew a passport these days. A little luck doesn’t hurt either.

Writer Jessica Fender is based in New Orleans. She’s a frequent contributor to AAA publications.

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