I’m not sure I ever thought a lot about how passports are processed. Actually, strike that, I know I’ve never thought a lot about how passports are made and other than through the mail, I never considered where to get a passport either. That’s why when an opportunity to get a behind the scenes tour of the Washington Passport Agency came up last weekend, I knew I couldn’t say no.
March 10th was National Passport Day, a day not to just draw attention to international travel but to help U.S. citizens actually get their own passport. Held on a Saturday, National Passport Day is an opportunity to get a passport without an appointment at any one of the 23 regional passport offices. For people with families or strict work schedules, this is the perfect time to take the plunge and get your license to travel the world.
The weather was perfect when we visited the passport office on National Passport Day. Chilly, but not a cloud in sight meant that more people than ever would take advantage of this opportunity to get their passport processed quickly and easily. Paul Peek, the Director of the Washington Passport Agency and a twenty-year veteran of passport services met us for a truly unique tour. He was the perfect guide to teach us more about the amazing process of how passports are actually made.
I’ve written before lamenting the fact that only about 30% of Americans have passports, as compared to other Western nations with 60-80% rates. But actually this is a huge number, more than 13 million passports are processed every year. If you stop to think about it, that’s a tremendous number and explains the painstaking process State Department employees go through to make sure citizens get their passports quickly and without mistakes.
There are many options when applying for a new passport, even one that I was unaware of, the passport card. This is a handy card-sized passport for use on land or sea crossings within the Western Hemisphere. So if you travel to Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean a lot and it’s not by air, this is a good alternative to always carrying your passport. Even for those of us that wouldn’t use this often, at $30 it’s a handy thing to have in case you lose your passport overseas. You won’t be able to use it in place of a passport book, but it will greatly help the local consulate or embassy confirm your identity and issue a new passport quickly and easily.
I learned a lot about the passport making process and even some tips and tricks. Many people who visit the passport office in person do so in order to receive an expedited passport. If you want to expedite the passport process and receive the documentation the same or next day, you will have to pay $60 extra and be able to prove that you are traveling overseas within the next two weeks. Otherwise staff will direct you to the cheaper option of waiting 4-6 weeks. If you apply in person, you need to make sure you have all of the required documentation so that the staff can easily confirm your identity and nationality.
Once everything has been approved, then its time for the passport service staff to work their magic. Modern technology has helped this process a lot, but I was surprised at how much of the work still must be done by actual people; a necessary evil in order to guarantee quality and accuracy. The passport application is first scanned; creating a digital file that will stay with you and your passport forever. Incidentally, it is this file that helps State Department officials replace lost or stolen passports.
After the passport application is scanned, the staff take over and make sure the information is correct, the picture looks good and that you are indeed eligible to receive a passport. They go through various methods to detect fraud and to make sure you don’t have any liens against your name, such as owing child support. Following all the necessary checks and balances, then the magic time has arrived.
I couldn’t help but get excited when I saw the stack of blank passports. There’s just something so exciting about a passport. It’s our ticket to seeing the world, learning about other cultures and ultimately growing as an individual. None of this could happen with that little blue book. The passport processors work with what is essentially a passport-making machine to produce the final document within just a few moments. It was amazing to see so many new passports being produced so quickly. Each minute that ticked by ensured that another person will be free to explore the world as they please.
This isn’t the final step though, in an example of fantastic customer service one last staff member checks all of the information again before giving it the thumbs up for shipping. This happens ever day, in 23 cities around the country, 18 million times. I know for a fact that these numbers never truly resonated with me before my tour and never again will I complain about the passport process again. Ok, that’s not true, I still think they’re a little pricey, but there’s no changing that.
So what did I learn from my tour on National Passport Day? Well, I learned that the process of actually creating a passport is a lot more complicated than I ever realized, but that the process for a citizen to procure one is not at all that onerous. It’s been a while since my first passport, but I was reacquainted with the procedures and was impressed at the lengths the State Department employees go to in order to make the process as easy and painless as possible. So if you want to get out there and see the best the world has to offer, be sure to get your own passport today.
When did you get your first passport? If you don’t have one, what’s stopping you?
PS - Here is a video of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton answering that same question – Secretary Clinton: My First Passport