First,the embarrassing news: Even the most upbeat statistics can only account for about 28 percent of the American public actually having a passport. And while this number is certainly a huge jump from 10 years ago, it still means that nearly three quarters of us have severely limited our travel options.
And until recently, the wait for a normal passport was about three weeks. Not anymore. New security rules now requiring Americans to have a passport to fly to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean have created a huge passport application crunch.
And along with the crunch come -- you guessed it -- delays.
In Fiscal Year 2006, the U.S. State Department issued 12 million passports. And if current numbers hold up, more than 19 million passports will be processed this year.
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At this writing, the optimistic estimate for getting a new or renewal passport is about six weeks. The reality: 10 weeks. And that’s before April 15, when it gets even worse. That’s when people are thinking about summer.
And it’s going to get worse. More Americans are traveling now than before the year 2000. And in certain regions or countries the impact of the new passport rules is severe. Consider this: 80 pe cent of all Americans visiting Jamaica have not needed a passport, until now.
The only exceptions to the new passport rule apply to those traveling by sea or land between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. The new passport rule doesn’t kick in until January 1, 2008.
However, based on the current delays, there’s no reason why you should hesitate to apply for that passport now.
The real crunch is for those planning Easter or summer trips. If you go the traditional application route, you may not get your passport in time. There are a number of companies that can get your passport expedited — for a fee. The current passport — valid 10 years — costs $97, but expediting and processing fees to get your passport in less than six weeks can be hefty.
The average expediting fee runs about $200, but then again, if you have to leave town soon, you don’t have much of a choice.
One company in New York is called “It’s easy.” And, from my own personal experience, it IS easy, if you’re willing to pay. As long as you have the proper documents, photos, application forms and proof of citizenship, they can you a passport in about three days (for $250).
What if you currently have a passport and it expires in the next six months. A number of countries won’t even issue you a visa, because they require that your U.S. passport be valid not only for the duration of your visit, but for three to six months after your entry or return from their country. Translation: If your passport is expiring in the next eight months or so, you might be well advised to renew it now.
Here’s another little known regulation you need to know to prevent costly (and stressful) delays. A number of countries — South Africa, for example, is one — you need to have at least two completely blank pages in your passport or you will be denied entry. (Most U.S. passports are issued with 24 pages, but if you’re a frequent traveler, you can ask for one with 48 pages. And considering they are valid for 10 years, I’d opt for the 48-page model).
If you don’t want to go through an expensive outside expediting service, you should call the National Passport Information Center at 1-877-487-2778. they have assigned additional staff to their call center to answer urgent inquiries. The call center is open from 7 a.m. to 12 midnight, Eastern Time, Monday-Friday, except federal holidays. If, for example, you are traveling in the next three weeks you need to make a personal appointment, and bring with you not only all of your required application documents and photos, but your airline ticket (or cruise ticket) showing your departure date from the U.S.
The center is now open for limited weekend hours to make emergency arrangements for travelers departing in seven days or less. NPIC is already staffed Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. until midnight, Eastern Time.
Still, my advice is to jettison a very dangerous five letter word from your vocabulary when it comes to getting your passport. That word is…LATER.
Peter Greenberg is TODAY's travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com.