Good News for Weary Travelers: Online Passport Renewal Is Coming Your Way

Following the success of a limited pilot program for online passport renewal this summer, the U.S. State Department says it plans to fully launch an online passport renewal option for the general public in early 2023.

The shift, which for many will eliminate the need for piles of paperwork and hours spent waiting in line at passport offices, is meant to offer relief after the pandemic created two years of extensive delays and backlogs for passport seekers.

The online renewal option was created following a December 2021 executive order from President Joe Biden, who demanded the federal government “design and deliver services in a manner that people of all abilities can navigate.”

An initial pilot program was launched in February for federal government employees and contractors. After that closed, a second program opened Aug. 2 for 25,000 members of the public; it closed to applicants on Aug. 12. State Department officials say they plan to initiate a third pilot program for a limited number of applicants later in September, and while they don’t yet have a specific date for launching the system for all Americans, they say they intend to do so by early 2023.

The majority of U.S. passports can currently be renewed by mail, but the process requires applicants to print and manually fill out multiple documents, and then send them in along with printed photographs (which must meet sizing and resolution standards) and a check or money order to cover fees.

For some people — applicants under the age of 16, for example, or those applying for a first-time passport — neither the mail nor online is an option. The same goes for those renewing a document that was lost or stolen, or updating an expired passport that was issued more than 15 years ago. In those cases, applicants must appear in person at a passport acceptance facility like a U.S. Post Office.

For time-crunched applicants who need their documents in six weeks or less, the options are even more limited. Last-minute passports can only be obtained after an appointment at one of the State Department’s 26 official passport centers and passport agencies, where passports can be renewed in person and obtained the same day for a $60 expediting fee.

How bad are current wait times?

Since 2020, shuttered passport offices and personnel cuts at the State Department have bogged down the system, with wait times for passport renewals stretching as long as 18 weeks. A slashed number of in-person appointments make options for emergency or last-minute travel documents elusive. Some travelers have flown across the country in order to have their passports renewed in person; Americans abroad have reported paying shady brokers in order to get an in-person slot at a consulate to update their passports or register the birth of a child.

Wait times for those needing updated documents have improved since early in the pandemic, but continue to lag: Routine passport service, which once took as little as six weeks, is currently estimated to take between seven and 10 weeks. Expedited service, which costs an additional $60, and, before the pandemic, would have taken up to three weeks, is now estimated to take between four and six weeks.

Will I get my passport quicker by using the online option?

Currently, processing times for online renewal remain the same as those sent via snail mail. But while there’s no guarantee that online renewal will shorten wait times, it will cut down on paperwork and streamline the process, both for applicants and State Department officials, who continue to work their way through a backlog of nearly two million passport applicants that started piling up in early 2020.

On its website, the State Department urges applicants not to renew online if they are traveling internationally in six weeks or less, as their current passport will become invalid as soon as they submit their renewal application.

How does the online process work?

To join the pilot program for online passport renewal, applicants must create an account at MyTravelGov, a process that requires a valid email address. Once logged in, the page will eventually contain a link to the online passport renewal system, which will require entering your passport number and uploading a digital photo. Currently, with the pilot program closed, there is no such link, and a link that read “how to renew your passport” takes you to a form with information for renewing by mail.

And the technology of the system itself, some travel advisers say, leaves room for improvement.

“The system is designed to take the nightmare part of passport renewal out of it and have people be able to do it from the comfort of their homes. It will be the future. But as it’s designed right now, it’s a little bit clunky,” said Anthony Berklich, a travel adviser and founder of the travel platform Inspired Citizen.

There are multiple steps, and applicants must create a password, then enter a separate passcode sent via email, which can be confusing. And after going through all the steps, some applicants, Mr. Berklich added, received error messages telling them they were ineligible for online renewal despite meeting all the requirements.

How do I know if I can renew online?

To qualify for online renewal, you must currently have a passport that is or was valid for 10 years, and it’s OK if your passport has expired. But you can’t renew documents online that are too new or too old, so if you have more than one year left on your passport (meaning it was issued after 2013), you can’t renew online. Same goes for expired passports that were issued more than 15 years ago, in 2007 or earlier.

You must also be at least 25 years old, and must not be changing your name or gender on the document. And you must be able to upload a digital photo and pay fees using a credit or debit card or ACH payment, and live in the United States. Lost or damaged passports also cannot be renewed online.

How much does it cost to renew online?

Passport renewal fees are the same whether you renew online or via traditional methods: $130 for an adult and $135 for a minor. An additional $60 fee for expedited service also remains the same.

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