Tips for Traveling Abroad: U.S. Passports and Visas

united states passport bookAccording to the United States Department of State (DOS), only one in three Americans has a valid passport. Which, when you think about it, really isn’t that surprising. You only need a passport if you’re traveling abroad, which not everyone does. But, if you do find yourself booking a romantic getaway to Paris, or an expedition to explore the jungles of Thailand, you’re going to need that little blue book.

Today, we’re breaking down everything you need to know about obtaining or renewing a U.S. passport, including how to apply, where to submit your application, how much it’s going to cost, and how long you may have to wait to receive it. We’ve also provided information on obtaining visas, which certain countries require in addition to your U.S. passport.

U.S. Passport Basics

Exiting the United States—or rather, entering another country—whether by car, boat, train, plane, or foot, requires documentation. You need to be able to prove you’re a U.S. citizen and that you are who you say you are. You’ll also need your passport to get back into the U.S.

You can either apply for a traditional passport book or the lesser-known passport card, which can only be used to enter certain countries and regions (Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean, and Bermuda) by land or sea. A passport card is cheaper to obtain, but as you can see, it’s more restrictive. If you’re going to file paperwork anyway, just go for the passport book.

A U.S. passport (the book or card) is good for 10 years for adults. For children ages 16 and younger, a passport is only valid for five years. Passports for children must be renewed in-person, and both parents must be present unless you provide notarized parental consent. While this may seem unnecessary, it’s meant to protect the child.

What Do I Need to Get a U.S. Passport?

It’s not super easy to get a passport, and honestly, we’d put it up there with going to the dentist and weekly grocery shopping in terms of things we least like to do. But, as annoying as the process may be, it will be your ticket to go anywhere in the world. Well, almost anywhere, but we’ll get to that later when we talk about visas.

To start the process, go to the DOS website. They’ve got all the forms you need and are pretty clear for what required documentation you need to bring with you when you apply for your passport. If you were born in the U.S., you’ll need to submit the following proof of citizenship along with your application:

  • A fully valid, undamaged U.S. passport (it can be expired) OR
  • Your U.S. birth certificate (you’ll need to submit an original or certified copy AND a photocopy. They will use the original or certified copy to prove the authenticity of the document and then mail it back to you after your application has been processed. They’ll keep the photocopy.)

You’ll also need to present photo identification, like your driver’s license, when you submit your application. You must provide the original as well as a photocopy of one of the following accepted types of identification listed here.

There’s just one more thing you need to obtain to go along with your application: a 2” x 2” color headshot of yourself. Some passport acceptance facilities will allow you to take your passport photo when you submit your application (more on that below). Otherwise, try a photo center at a nearby Walgreens or CVS, which both offer passport photos for just $14.99.

Don’t take a photo on your own unless you study up on the requirements: Stand in front of a white background, have a neutral expression (i.e., don’t smile), dress in everyday clothes (no uniform). An alternative is a service like ePassportPhoto.com.

Filling Out Your U.S. Passport Application

Now that you’ve rounded up your proof of citizenship, photo identification, and an approved passport photo, it’s finally time to fill out your actual application. The DOS has three primary passport applications that you’ll need to fill out depending on your circumstances: the DS-11, DS-82, and DS-5504.

  • The DS-11 application is for those who are applying for a U.S. passport for the first time or those who are applying for a child under the age of 16.  
  • The DS-82 application is for those needing to renew an expired passport.
  • The DS-5504 application is for those needing to change or correct information on their passport or those whose original passport was limited to less than 10 years for some reason.

The DOS actually makes it super easy to fill out these forms online using their Form Filler. The Form Filler collects your information and will automatically generate one of the three forms above based on your answers. Or if you’d rather fill out your application the old fashioned way, you can download the PDF version of the form you need and fill it out manually.

If you’re filling out the form yourself, you must fill out the form in black ink. Not blue, not red, not green—black. Trust us, you don’t want to be the one who submits their application only to have it sent back two weeks later just because you used a blue pen.

Submitting Your U.S. Passport Application

Where and how you actually submit your U.S. passport application is dependent on when you need your passport by. The normal, suggested time frame for applying for your passport is at least six to eight weeks before your trip. However, expedited options are available and we’ve broken them down below.

The general rule of thumb for most applications is that if you’re applying for the first time, you must submit your application in-person at an official passport acceptance facility. You can find one near you using this tool, but most of these facilities are post offices, public libraries, clerks of courts, and other local government offices.

Where to apply if your trip is…

  • Less than three weeks outs: This is also considered an expedited application but is only acceptable for those with urgent international travel plans. In this situation, you must submit your application in-person to a passport agency. These are different from passport acceptance facilities and there are only 27 of them in the country, so you’ll most likely have to travel to visit one. You must bring proof of your upcoming travels with you and an expedited processing fee of $60 will also be added to the total cost of your passport.
  • Right now: U.S. passports are only administered immediately in life-or-death emergencies. The DOS considers serious illnesses, injuries, or deaths in your immediate family that require you to travel outside the U.S. within 72 hours as life-or-death emergencies. In these situations, you must call 1-877-487-2779/1-888-874-7793 (Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.) or 202-647-4000 (outside of business hours) to make an emergency appointment. You’ll need to bring your passport application and supporting documents, proof of the life-or-death emergency, and your international travel itinerary.

How Much Does a U.S. Passport Cost?

For a new passport book for an adult, you’ll need to write a check to the tune of $145. A new passport book for a child (under age 16) is $110. If you’re applying for a passport card, adults will pay $65 and children will pay $50. Of course, this doesn’t include any expedited processing fees that may be tacked on if you wait too long to get your passport.

If you’re just renewing a passport or changing information on your passport, the application fee is $110 for adults. You can see a full breakdown of fees here.

How Long Will It Take to Get My Passport After Applying?

After you’ve submitted your application, all of the necessary documents, and paid the application fees, you’ll be able to check the status of your application online or by phone within seven to 10 days. However, you can expect your passport to be processed within the following time frames:

  • Routine applications: Six to eight weeks
  • Expedited applications: Two to three weeks
  • Expedited at a passport agency: Eight business days

Do I Need an International Visa Too?

We know. You’ve done all this work to get a passport and then some countries want you to get a visa, too. Most countries frequented by Americans, like Mexico, Canada, Japan, and most (if not all) EU countries, don’t require a tourist visa if you’re just visiting on vacation, say for a week or two (though you may need to provide proof of return flights).

It’s when you want to stay 90 days or more that most countries want you to have a visa. Sometimes it’s as few as 15 days or as much as six months. But first, what exactly is a visa? A visa is essentially an endorsement that lets you stay in a foreign country for a certain period of time as a tourist, student, or in a business capacity.

The tricky thing about visas is that not all of them work the same. Some countries let you purchase a visa when you arrive in-country, while others dictate that you must secure them by mail before you leave home. Still others, like Turkmenistan, only grant visas to travelers by way of tour operators. As in, you can only get into the country by way of a guided tour.

If you’re planning to visit a foreign country, do yourself a favor and check to see if that country requires a visa. We recommend doing this early, as it can take anywhere from two weeks to two months for your visa to be approved by the nation’s consulate in the U.S. 

The DOS is Your One-Stop Resource

The U.S. Department of State is a fantastic resource when you plan to travel abroad. Not only does the website provide travel warnings, but each country has a travel page with quick facts, like whether a tourist visa is required, how to obtain one if you need to do so, and any proof you may need to share for required vaccinations. You can find this information by visiting this page and entering the name of your destination in the search box on the left-hand side.

Now that you have all the information you need to obtain your passport and any necessary visas, it’s time to figure out where you’re going to stay. When you book through Roomkey, you can compare rates at more than 45,000 hotels around the world. Simply search for hotels in your desired location, find the one that best fits your needs, and we’ll take you directly to that hotel’s website to secure your room, rate, and loyalty points, too. Bon voyage!