Planning to study abroad or just wanting to jet off and see the world? One of the first things you’ll need to do to prepare for your trip is get your passport—or make sure yours doesn’t need to be renewed. The process may feel overwhelming, but we’re here to break down step by step how to apply for a passport so you know exactly what you need to do! 

FYI: Passport wait times right now are LONG, due to pandemic-related delays and backlogs. The current passport processing time is about 14 weeks for standard processing. The US Department of State recommends applying for a new passport at least 4-6 months in advance of when you will need it.

Need one sooner? It’s possible, but you’ll have to pay for expedited service. Even then, it can still take up to 10 weeks to get your passport (unless it’s a life-or-death emergency). Moral of the story? Apply for your passport WELL in advance of when you’ll need it. 

Not sure whether you need to renew your passport or start from scratch? Here’s your cheat sheet: 

  • Never had a passport before? Apply for a new one (obviously). 
  • If the last passport you had is expired AND was issued before you were 16: apply for a new passport. 
  • Was your previous passport issued more than 15 years ago? Apply for a new passport.
  • If your previous passport was lost, stolen, or damaged: apply for a new passport.
  • If your previous passport is undamaged, in your possession, was issued when you were 16 years old or older AND was issued less than 15 years ago: congrats! You can renew your passport by mail. 

How to apply for a US Passport 

1. Apply for your passport as EARLY as possible. 

As noted above, current passport wait times are unusually long, due to pandemic-related delays and backlogs. In order to be sure you have your passport in time for your trip, make sure you apply for it at least 4 months in advance. 

2. Choose your passport type. 

Technically, there’s two types of passports you can apply for: a passport book or a passport card. 

A passport book is the traditional passport, and typically the best option for most travelers. This is good for all international travel by land, air or sea. It costs $165 for first-time applicants, and $130 for renewals. 

A passport card is a smaller ID card that allows you to travel to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda from the US by land or sea. The passport card is NOT valid for any air travel. It costs $65 for first-time applicants and $30 for renewals. 

3. Get your photograph taken. 

You’ll need to provide a photo for them to use on your passport book. There’s about a trillion rules regarding the composition and details of your photograph. If you don’t meet them all, your passport could be delayed. 

Pro-tip: the best way to ensure you meet all of their requirements is to get your photo taken at a passport photo center. A quick search online will show you where you can get your passport taken near you, which generally includes: 

  • Post offices (not every post office has this service, so call or visit their website first to verify)
  • Pharmacies and retail stores (CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens, Walmart, Costco)
  • Professional photography studios
  • U.S. Passport Offices

If you’re hitting crunch time and don’t have time for a trip to CVS, carefully follow these steps to take and print your own passport photo.

Note: Some colleges and universities offer a Passport Photo Day or have facilities on campus to get your photo taken. Check with your school’s study abroad office to see if this is available on your campus!

4. Gather all the documents you’ll need. 

There’s a few documents you’ll need to submit along with your application. The document must be undamaged, original and a paper copy. 

  1. Proof of US citizenship

You need to submit only one of the following documents. Make sure it’s undamaged and an original, paper copy. 

  • Fully-valid, undamaged U.S. passport (it’s ok if it’s expired)
  • U.S. birth certificate that meets the following requirements: 
    • Issued by the city, county, or state of birth
    • Lists your full name, date of birth, and place of birth
    • Lists your parent(s)’ full names
    • Has the date filed with registrar’s office (must be within one year of birth)
    • Includes the registrar’s signature
    • Has the seal of the issuing authority
  • Consular Report of Birth Abroad or Certification of Birth
  • Certificate of Naturalization 
  • Certificate of Citizenship

If none of these apply to you, you can view the list of acceptable primary and secondary citizenship documents. 

  1. Photocopy of citizenship proof

Whatever documents you provide to demonstrate your citizenship, you’ll also need to provide a photocopy. Copies must be legible, on white 8.5”x11” standard paper, black and white and single-sided. If the document has a front and back, provide a photocopy of both on separate sheets of paper. 

  1. Proof of identity

You’ll need to submit a photocopy of your ID, as well as bring the physical copy with you to present at your in-person appointment. The most commonly accepted forms of ID are a valid or expired previous US passport book or passport card, an in-state, fully-valid driver’s license or a certificate of naturalization or citizenship. If you don’t have any of those, you can check the full list of acceptable identification documents for a US passport. Keep in mind that if you bring a secondary form of ID, you’ll need to bring two. 

  1. Recent color photograph 

You’ll need to bring a passport-sized photograph of yourself with your application. See above for more details on this one. 

  1. Your passport application

See the next step for more details. 

5. Fill out the application form (DS-11). 

The DS-11 is the standard passport application form for first-time applicants. It’s pretty simple—just two pages long. You can fill it out online and print it, or print a copy and fill it out by hand. Either way, you’ll need to bring a printed copy with your supporting documents to your appointment. 

Important: do NOT sign your application form until you a passport agent instructs you to do so! 

You can download and print the DS-11 passport application form, or fill it out electronically

6. Go in-person to submit your application. 

All first-time passport applicants (and anyone who isn’t eligible to renew by mail) must submit their documents in-person at a passport acceptance facility. Many post offices accept passport applications. 

Some acceptance facilities require appointments, some do not. It’s a good idea to call in advance to verify if they accept walk-ins, as well as to verify payment options. Some passport acceptance facilities only accept check or cash payments, for example. 

Once you’ve submitted your passport application with all the required documents, you can check the status of your passport application online. Your new passport will be mailed to you, along with any submitted supporting documents that were not photocopies. These may come in a separate mailer. Once you receive your passport, make sure you keep it in a very safe location, as it’s now one of your most important documents and forms of ID! (And remember, it’ll cost $130 to replace if you lose it!)

How to renew your US passport 

Thankfully, renewing your passport is pretty easy in most cases. If you have a standard renewal, you can even do it by mail!  

Just as a reminder, you can renew your passport by mail IF: 

  • You have your passport in your possession AND it’s not damaged
  • Your passport was issued in the past 15 years AND was issued when you were 16 or older 
  • Your passport was issued in your current name or you can document your name change

Here’s what you need to do: 

1. Fill out your application (form DS-82). 

The passport renewal application is pretty similar to the original application. You can download the PDF passport renewal application or fill it out online and then print a copy. 

2. Get your photograph taken. 

You’ll need to provide a new passport photo (taken within the last six months) to go with your passport application. If your last passport photo was as terrible as ours are, this might be a welcome step. 

Remember, the best way to ensure you meet all of the requirements is to get your photo taken at a passport photo center. A quick search online will show you where you can get your passport taken near you, which generally includes: 

  • Post offices (not every post office has this service, so call or visit their website first to verify)
  • Pharmacies and retail stores (CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens, Walmart, Costco)
  • Professional photography studios
  • U.S. Passport Offices

If you’re hitting crunch time and don’t have time for a trip to CVS, carefully follow these steps to take and print your own passport photo.

Once you have your photo, staple the photo to the application using four staples vertically in the corners. Don’t bend the photo! 

3. Gather the necessary documents. 

Along with your completed and printed application, you’ll need to submit: 

  • Your recent, color passport photo
  • Your most recent passport (don’t worry, they will mail this back to you! You’ll get to keep all the stamps you’ve collected.)
  • Any name change documents (i.e. a marriage certificate), if applicable. 
  • The applicable fees, by check or money order.

If you’re renewing a passport book, the fee is $130. A passport card is $30 to renew. Expedited service is an additional $60. You cannot send cash and you can’t pay online (sorry). All checks can be made payable to “U.S. Department of State.” Don’t forget to print your full name and date of birth of the applicant on the front of the check as shown below. 

4. Mail it all off.

Place your application, old passport, photo, any other documents needed and fees to the applicable address below. You MUST use the USPS (United States Postal Service) to mail your application. You can’t use UPS, FedEx, or another mailing service. We recommend you purchase insured shipping and/or shipping tracking to ensure your application is delivered. Here’s where to mail your passport renewal application:

Standard Service (If you live in California, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, or Texas):

National Passport Processing Center
Post Office Box 640155
Irving, TX 75064-0155

Standard Service (If you live in any other state or Canada):

National Passport Processing Center
Post Office Box 90155
Philadelphia, PA 19190-0155

Expedited Service (Additional fee applies. For any state or Canada):

Write “EXPEDITE” on the outside of the mailing envelope.

National Passport Processing Center
Post Office Box 90955
Philadelphia, PA 19190-0955

5. That’s it! Now sit back and wait patiently. 

You can track your passport application status online. Remember, current routine processing times are up to 14 weeks. Expedited applications may still take up to 10 weeks for processing and delivery. Your new passport will be shipped to you (as well as your old one, but they will likely come in separate packages). 

While you’re waiting, why not start dreaming about your next trip? Get cheap flights with StudentUniverse or check out 101 bucket list destinations around the world to kickstart your planning. 

When should I renew my passport?

Most countries require passports to be valid for at least 6 months beyond the date of travel. For example, if you’re traveling in August and your passport expires in January, you should aim to renew your passport prior to your August trip, if possible. With current timelines, that would mean applying for a new passport in April (almost 1 full year before the expiration date listed). If it’s too late to do so, you should renew it ASAP when you return. Keep in mind that some countries require that 6 month period of validity, so check your passports BEFORE you book your flights!

Because the passport wait times currently are longer than usual, it’s a good idea to renew your passport about 9-12 months before the expiration date listed, so you won’t have a lapse in validity. 

How much does it cost to renew my passport? 

For first-timers, applying for a passport book costs $165—$130 for the passport and $35 for an application fee. For renewals, you’ll need to pay $130 only. 

Passport cards are much cheaper, and cost just $30 ($65 for first-timers). However, they offer a very limited subset of travel. 

If you need an expedited passport, the fee is $60. 

How long does it take to get a new US passport? 

Currently (as of October 2021), the standard processing time for new passports or passport renewals is 14 weeks. Expedited service is up to 10 weeks. 

How do I get a new passport quickly? 

If you have a qualifying reason—i.e. a life-or-death emergency—you can call to make an appointment at a local passport agency center. There are two types of appointments: Life or Death Emergency Services or Urgent Travel Service. Passport agencies do NOT accept walk-in appointments for last-minute passport services.

To make an appointment, you can call 1-877-487-2778. 

Can I apply for a passport online? 

At this time, there’s no way to apply for your passport online (sorry). First-time applicants and some renewals must apply in person. Most renewals can apply by mail. 

Are passport agencies open right now? 

In-person services are available, but services remain limited. Most passport agencies are no longer accepting walk-in appointments. You can call 1-877-487-2778 or 1-888-874-7793 TDD/TTY between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday to make an appointment.

Local passport application centers, like post offices, are open as well, following local guidelines and restrictions. 

When will my passport expire? 

If you were 16 or older when your passport was issued, your passport is valid for 10 years. Passports issued for minors under the age of 16 are valid for 5 years. Once you have your passport, the issue date and the expiration date will be listed in your passport book.