Obtaining a United States Passport

Do I Need a Passport?

One inevitable step you may need to take when preparing to travel is obtaining a passport. Obtaining a United Sates Passport can be a lengthy process, so it is suggested that you get one before the need arises. In this article we will discuss when a passport is need, what is needed to obtain one, how to get one and how to renew your passport.

Essentially a passport is a form of identification that is recognized around the globe. The passport is specifically designed to be used for international travel, therefore traveling domestically (inside of the United Sates) does not require a passport.

Obviously, there are only two countries that you can enter via automobile from the US, Canada and Mexico. Visiting all other countries will require a boat ride or a plane, and regardless of how or when you leave the US, you will need a passport.

Types of US Passports

Most U.S. citizens are accustomed to seeing one type of passport… “the blue book”. However, with respect to civilian travel passports in the United States there are two types, the book and the card. And there are four types in total:

Regular – The first and most commonly recognized type is the regular passport. This form of passport comes in a small book form and has a highly recognized blue cover. This type of passport can be used for any type of international travel.

The regular passport is issued to United States Citizens and, as mentioned, can be used for any type of civilian travel. It comes with 28 visa pages and once obtained lasts for 10 years from the date of issuance (unless you are under 16 years of age and then it expires in 5 years).

Passport Card – This variation of the Regular Passport has certain restrictions that the “blue” passport does not. The passport card may only be used for land and sea international travel to Bermuda, Canada, the Caribbean or Mexico.

The card is about the size of a typical driver’s license and is valid for 10 years for adults and 5 years for minors. The card cannot be used for international air travel, even for air travel to Canada or Mexico.

Government Official Passport –This form of passport is given to official of the United states Government. An Official Passport is used by US Government employee who travel internationally to conduct government business. This form of passport cannot be used for nonofficial travel.

Diplomatic Passport: A diplomatic passport is issued to a Foreign Service Officer or this person is traveling abroad on behalf of the U.S. Government to carry out diplomatic duties. Same as Official passport, it cannot be used for leisure travel.

What is needed to obtain a US Passport

  • Application for United States Passport
  • Proof of United States Citizenship
  • Passport Sized Photograph

Application for United States Passport – The application for a US Passport can be a bit intimating. The application is currently six pages long. The first four pages are instructions and only the last two pages require information.

The application is called Form DS-11 and can be obtained on the U.S. Department of State website by following this link:

Get the Application for a United States Passport here

US Passport ApplicationImportant Note:

You must apply for a US Passport in person if any of the following are true:

  • You are applying for your first U.S. passport
  • You are under-age 16
  • Your previous U.S. passport was issued when you were under-age 16
  • Your previous U.S. passport was lost, stolen, or damaged
  • Your previous U.S. passport was issued more than 15 years ago

If none of the above statements apply to you, please see the “Renew your Passport” section of this article.

In general, the information required for the application is typical personal information, however the application does ask for specific information about one’s parents and spouse (if applicable). For instance the application asks for the “Place of Birth” of your parents and your spouse. It also asks for current marriage date, divorce date (if applicable) and travel plans, if any.

Proof of United States Citizenship – When applying you are going to need to prove U.S. Citizenship. This is where a birth certificate comes in really handy. A birth certificate is the most commonly recognized form fact, it proving citizenship, assuming of course that you were born in a U.S. hospital.

In fact, it may be worth the effort to obtain a copy of your birth certificate in advance of applying for a passport. This will certainly help to streamline an already lengthy process and get your documents much quicker. But if you do not have or cannot obtain you birth certificate, here is the full list of documents for proof of citizenship:

For people Born in the United States:

  • Previous U/S. Passport
  • A hospital birth record
  • An early baptismal or circumcision certificate
  • Early census, school, medical, or family Bible records
  • Insurance files or published birth announcements (such as a newspaper article) and
  • Notarized affidavits (or DS-10, Birth Affidavit) of older blood relatives having knowledge of your birth may be submitted in addition to some of the records listed above.

For People not born in the United States:

  • Previous U.S. passport
  • Certificate of Naturalization
  • Certificate of Citizenship
  • Consular
  • Report of Birth Abroad
  • Or other evidence as described on Form DS-11, Page 2

Getting a Passport Sized Photo – Believe it or not… This can be one of the more frustrating things about obtaining a U.S. Passport.  And trust me, the photos need to exactly meet the specifications spelled out on the passport application.  The basic requirements for the photo are quite simple, for example the photo must be recent, taken within the last six months.

Additionally the photo must be a “head shot” only and must be 2″ x 2″ in size, however beyond those basic requirements the specifications start to get a little complicated.  For instance, your head must be larger than 1″ in the photo but no more than 1 3/8″ and the list goes on… Here are a few of the requirements for a United States passport photo:

  • must be in clear and in color
  • full front view of the face
  • Must have a neutral facial expression, but a natural smile is OK
  • both eyes must be open
  • Photo must be printed on photo quality paper
  • Photo must have have plain light (white or off-white) background
  • Photo must be taken in normal street attire
  • No hat, or head covering unless previously authorized
  • No headphones, Bluetooth or similar devices can be visible
  • Retouched photographs are prohibited
  • And a few other restrictions and requirements…

So what is one to do about meeting all of these US Passport Photo requirements?

Simple, go to a store that offers Passport Photo Services.

Here are a few locations that offer United States Passport Photo Services:

  • UPS Stores and FedEx Office Print and Ship Shops
  • Large Pharmacy Chains Stores: CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreen Stores
  • U.S. Passport Offices and Registered Passport Expediters

Do Minors Need Passports?

Passports are required for anyone traveling internationally by air, this applies to everyone, including infants. Passports obtained by children under the age of 16 expire after five years instead of the standard 10 years for adults.  It is expected that a young child’s appearance will change dramatically after a few years, so the photo may not be valid for more than a few years.  Please keep this in mind as it is required that a passport photo resemble the owner.

For travel to Canada, children 15 years of age and younger may cross the border by land or sea without a passport, but a certified copy of a birth certificate is necessary. Minors ages 16 to 18 must have a passport, passport card, enhanced driver’s license or Nexus card to re-enter the U.S. from Canada by land or sea.

What are Visas?

Some countries require visas for entry. Sometimes this requirement can be fulfilled at the airport upon arrival in the country. Other countries require a visa to be obtained prior to arrival in their country. For countries that require a pre-travel visa, the visa must in your passport when you check-in for your flight. Individually issued visas are typically permanently attached to your passport. If you are flying with a group, you may have a group visa. If you have a group visa, the group visa must be available for review at check-in, security checkpoints and upon arrival in the foreign country.


Each country has different regulations, but you generally need at least six months left on your passport before the expiration date to fly. Some countries require that you have a ticket back to the United States upon arrival in their country.

Condition of your Passport

It is important that you keep your passport in “good condition”. Passports that are not in good condition, such as torn pages or showing excessive wear may not be accepted and may prevent you from boarding a plane. In addition, your passport photo must be clear and preferable current and of course all information must be readable. You must also have sufficient pages in your passport for entry stamps.

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