UPDATE, July 23, 2021: The U.S. State Department has temporarily suspended its online system for booking last-minute appointments for passport centers in order to ensure that the very limited number of appointment times set aside for emergency travel go to those applicants who truly need them. Currently, the only way to schedule a last-minute appointment is by calling the National Passport Information Center at 877/487-2778 between the hours of 8am and 10pm ET, Monday through Friday.
The government agency made the change, according to the State Department website, in order to "address the problem of third parties booking all available appointments using bots, and then selling [those reservations] to applicants with urgent travel needs."
To qualify for a limited, last-minute appointment for same-day service, you need proof of a life-or-death emergency requiring travel within the next 72 hours. Visit the State Department's passport site for more information.
If you're an American planning to travel internationally within the next six months and you need to apply for or renew a passport, you should get on that, like, yesterday.
According to the U.S. State Department, passport processing is currently taking up to 18 weeks. That's six weeks longer than the usual maximum wait time of 12 weeks.
U.S. Postal Service delays are one reason the system has slowed down. The limited availability of appointments at passport acceptance facilities due to increased travel demand is another.
Would-be travelers trying to get their first passports must apply in person at such facilities, which include post offices, clerks of court offices, and public libraries.
Those places are accepting applications again after closing during the pandemic, but appointment availability isn't fully back to normal yet in many offices, and slots fill up quickly.
To be on the safe side, first-time and renewing passport seekers should apply a full half-year before travel, the State Department advises.
If you were hoping to go abroad before then, there are some things you can try that might speed the process along—but even so, you need to act now.
First, don't apply at the post office. A U.S. Postal Service rep told the Arizona Republic that first-time applicants might have better luck finding an appointment at county clerks, libraries, State Department passport offices, or other government-approved facilities.
You can search for available locations by zip code at the State Department's website.
If you're renewing a passport, do that by mail. Yes, there are postal delays at the moment, but waiting around for an in-person appointment will only add time to the process.
Provided you still have your expired, undamaged passport and it was issued in the last 15 years when you were over 16 and had the same name, you can renew by mail. The government's website walks you through the process and has all the necessary forms.
Send your application via trackable mail so that you can keep tabs on its progress.
When you apply, spring for two-day delivery for an extra $17.56 to get the completed passport to your mailbox faster after it's processed. That will only shave days off on the back end of things, however.
To get your passport in 12 weeks or less, pay a fee of $60 to expedite service, either at the passport acceptance facility or when you renew by mail. (The two-day delivery charge mentioned above is not included in the expedite fee.)
Before the pandemic, 12 weeks was how long it took to get a passport without expediting. Now you'll need to pay an extra fee to get what used to be slow-poke service.
There are third-party expeditors, also known as courier companies, that are allowed to submit passport applications on customers' behalf for additional fees. The State Department claims, however, that using such services may take just as long as doing things yourself, partly because you'll still need to apply in person if it's your first passport.
But if you feel that you need professional (non-governmental) guidance or want help navigating the visa requirements of the country you want to visit, an expeditor might hurry things up. Read our advice on these types of services for key considerations and caveats.
In case of an emergency requiring you to travel outside the country within 72 hours, you can call one of the government's passport agencies and request one of the limited appointments set aside for same-day service.
The State Department maintains an online portal for making urgent passport appointments for such situations—but with the increased demand and limited availability, officials aren't messing around: Your emergency needs to be of the life-and-death variety, and you better have proof.
If all that doesn't work, try reaching out to the offices of your congressional representatives in the House and Senate—but, again, keep in mind that travelers with serious emergencies will get top priority.
For a complete rundown of all the fees, forms, and links you'll need to apply for a U.S. passport, visit our comprehensive resource page.