Which is more fun: root canals or getting a passport application expedited?
The answer, for now at least, is the root canal.
Thanks to a confluence of problems from understaffing to a surge in travel after the Covid lockdowns, many people trying to get a new passport quickly are being told they might have to fly cross country to get their required in-person passport appointment.
That is if they can get an appointment at all.
Would-be travelers are reporting that the State Department’s phone system is routinely hanging up on callers while they’re in queue to speak with a staffer.
These were some of the problems Elizabeth, a development director for a D.C.-based non-profit, faced when she realized that her passport had expired in late January, almost exactly seven weeks before she was due to fly and visit her daughter in Greece.
Elizabeth applied for a a new one with the new online passport renewal system on February 2, requesting the option that it be expedited.
By early March, no new passport had arrived, and she started to panic.
In that way, she was experiencing the new normal. We reported in February that passport renewal and application wait times had sharply increased, and we warned travelers to plan ahead.
But learning that the official State Department system was hanging up on callers was a new twist I hadn’t heard about until my 20-year-old daughter, Beatrix, who also needed an expedited passport renewal for a spring break trip, complained last week that she had been dialing for hours and hadn't got through once.
Elizabeth had it even worse.
"I called 20 times before I was able to get into the [Passport Office’s] phone tree," Elizabeth told me. She then had an additional wrinkle: Because her passport was already in process, she had to wait online to talk with a specialist about the likelihood of getting it in time.
"Once I was in the system, I’d get transferred. One time I waited 5 hours to talk with someone, another time it was 3 hours, and another time 2 and a half. Thank goodness I could just keep the phone line open while I did other work. If not, I would have been in real trouble."
The State Department acknowledges it’s been having issues with its phone systems going over capacity, but said that fixes should be in place soon.
"We understand some customers are facing extended wait times when calling the National Passport Information Center and we are taking steps to improve the telephone experience," a State Department spokesperson wrote me in response to my questions. "We are working with our call center contractor to hire additional staff and increase our capacity to handle the increased call volumes we are seeing."
But the problems go way beyond the call centers. Finding a place at a nearby passport center has also become near impossible in many cases.
When Elizabeth was finally able to get through, she was offered appointments in Texas and Arkansas, more than 1,000 miles from her home in Washington, DC.
She decided to try her luck and simply show up unannounced at the passport office in Washington, DC but she was ultimately turned away. While she was there, however, she met people who had traveled for passport renewals from Indiana, and, in an ironic twist, Arkansas (if only they could have swapped places!).
When I asked the State Department whether some passport offices were more crowded with others, the question was sidestepped. The State Department spokesperson did note, "We have procedures in place for those Americans who must travel at the last minute for emergency, life-or-death situations. This typically refers to travel within three business days because an immediate family member outside of the United States has died, is dying, or has a life-threatening illness or injury. Further information is on our website," they wrote.
"We also have procedures in place for individuals who have urgent international travel within 14 calendar days," I was told. "However, for those who need a last-minute passport for leisure travel, they should expect that our appointments will fill up quickly. Our message to U.S. citizens is to plan far ahead to avoid such a situation.”
The State Department told me that right now, expedited passport applications will take 5–7 weeks (standard applications take 8–11 weeks)—but even those stratospheric numbers will probably rise as summer approaches.
What strategies can be used to get an expedited renewal right now?
I asked the State Department for any advice on what time of day is best to call for an appointment (something that can only be done over the phone).
I got no information from the government, but Elizabeth said a staffer told her that wait times are lower in the evening hours. The problem with that is new appointments are released first thing in the morning, Elizabeth said, so the later in the day you wait, the less likely you are to snag an appointment. The phone system is available from 8am to 10pm ET.
Both Elizabeth and my daughter ended up avoiding the system entirely by enlisting the help of their Congressional representative. In Elizabeth’s case, that was Eleanor Holmes Norton, the delegate from the District of Columbia. You can find your own representative here.
After one quick phone call to the reps’ offices and a wait of about an hour, both were able to secure start-of-day appointments at nearby passport offices.
While I was glad that my daughter and Elizabeth had found help, the method left a sour taste.
It feels wrong that a service that should be easily available to all Americans requires this type of political string-pulling to secure.
Elizabeth also brought up the Catch-22 paradox of the situation: In order to obtain a last-minute passport for non-urgent travel, Americans must show proof of an air ticket for international travel within two weeks. But since the Passport Department won’t guarantee expedited passports, buying that ticket could be the equivalent of flushing money down the drain.
Will passport application wait time improve soon?
Not according to the State Department.
The same State Department representative told me: "As Americans are traveling internationally again, we are seeing unprecedented demand for passports. During some weeks this winter, we have received more than 500,000 applications, the highest number ever for this time of year, exceeding our official projections. We are anticipating our busiest summer travel season on record. In Fiscal Year 2022, we issued nearly 22 million passports, which is more than in any other previous fiscal year. Given the high level of demand we are already seeing this year, we believe we are on track to break that record again in Fiscal Year 2023, and to issue more passports than ever before."
The State Department official did tell me that "we have increased staffing levels and are working to hire additional staff to keep up with demand."
But will it be enough? And will it be able to staff up in time for the summer rush? That’s an open question.
What’s not debatable is that you must plan ahead, if you can.
Take this article as a warning: Do not rely on expedited passport renewals or applications. If your passport is expiring, or if you need to get your first one, do not delay.
Here's how to apply for a U.S. passport.
As Elizabeth said at the end of our conversation “I just want my story to be useful. If it encourages people to get their passports earlier, or more importantly, gets the State Department to change the system, then at least there’s an upside to the hell I’ve been through for the last week.”