A Bay Area family of six had everything arranged for their trip to France at the end of June — except a passport renewal for one of their sons. They’d booked their flights and accommodations in April and gotten a passport appointment in May, paying for expedited service. But one week before the trip, their son’s passport still hadn’t arrived.
They started making daily calls to the U.S. State Department, which issues and renews passports, but couldn’t get through to anyone.
It wasn’t until they saw posts on local Facebook groups that they realized there was a national passport appointment backlog. And it wasn’t until four days before their trip that they learned about a potentially risky way around the backlog.
Why is there a passport backlog?
Andres Rodriguez, lead community relations officer for passport services at the State Department, said the passport backlog is a result of the pandemic’s effect on travel.
During the pandemic, the usual number of expiring passport renewals and new applications significantly decreased because of travel restrictions. As restrictions eased and travel resumed, applications surged. Many people whose passports had expired applied for renewals, and a considerable number of people who had never obtained a passport before also applied for the first time.
As of March 24, 2023, the latest available data, passport processing times were 10-13 weeks, and expedited service was taking seven to nine weeks.
Processing times include the duration a person’s application spends at passport agencies or centers, excluding any additional time taken for mailing.
The department is receiving roughly 400,000 passport applications a week, down from 500,000 earlier in the year. Last year, more than 22 million passports were issued, and the department is on track to surpass that number this year.
According to the State Department, limited appointments are available at passport agencies, and the department prioritizes life-or-death emergencies.
What is the State Department doing to reduce the backlog?
They’re increasing overtime for all employees across the network, hiring more passport specialists to handle the manual paper-based process, and using a satellite agency in Washington, D.C., to assist with renewal applications.
Rodriguez said that the key to improvement long-term is modernizing the system, rather than relying on increased overtime, which is why the State Department piloted an online passport renewal system in February 2022. The system offered applicants a user-friendly portal to create profiles, upload documents and photos, make payments and renew their passports without the need for paper submissions.
This pilot version processed around 500,000 applications before being temporarily taken down for system enhancements in March 2023. The plan is to reintroduce the system by the end of the year, providing the public with a more efficient and convenient option for renewing passports online.
Congressional reps are trying to help with the passport backlog
Congressional staff are also scrambling to help their constituents receive their passports on time.
The office of Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Los Angeles) has handled more than 250 passport cases since June. Gomez’s staff has helped more than 400 people receive passports, both through the office and at two passport fairs, one in April and one in July.
The passport fairs, held over a four-hour period, provided people with passport renewal and new application services. The events were staffed by representatives from Gomez’s office and the U.S. Postal Service, which offered assistance in Korean, Spanish and English.
At the April fair, 120 appointment slots were available, and a total of 209 passport applications were filed. The July 23 event, held at the Eagle Rock post office, had about 210 slots, and helped over 250 people with their passport needs. There is now a wait list with over 100 people hoping to participate in the next fair, which Gomez plans to organize in September.
“I wanted to do this as a service to my district and as a means of reaching out to constituents, because it has been a number one issue in my office from constituents for at least the last year or more,” Gomez said.
Gomez said that, given that the backlog has accumulated over a period of two years, it is likely to take a couple more years to fully catch up.
How the passport backlog has affected people
Feeling increasingly desperate, the Bay Area family planning a trip to France tried reaching out to local politicians for a passport appointment and were able to secure one, but it was six days after their scheduled flight. And it was in Denver.
They also visited a local passport office multiple times, but faced constant rejection. They could get help only if they had booked an appointment by phone beforehand.
Four days before their trip, the parents of the Bay Area family took the day off work to go back to the local passport office. They say were informed by a security guard that they couldn’t be allowed inside unless they faked a hospital letter from their destination country, pretending they had a medical emergency.
They tried it, but were caught.
However, in line, Andrea — the mother of the Bay Area family who agreed to talk to The Times if we did not use her surname, for fear of legal repercussions — met someone who managed to get a passport appointment in another state — through what the State Department’s Rodriguez called a third-party expediter.
Jokingly, Andrea told the person in line that she should probably get the appointment seller’s number and scribbled it on an old receipt.
Facing the prospect of having to cancel the family trip, the next day, Andrea paid $400 via Zelle to someone she never met for an appointment in Tucson. Andrea’s partner and son traveled back and forth from the Bay Area to Tucson the day before their vacation and were able to renew the passport.
“We tried every above and below trick in the book to make it happen,” Andrea said. “Ultimately, the cost of whoever this person was who was able to secure an appointment was far cheaper than all of the costs that we were going to incur to have to cancel or change all of our reservations, because nobody would help us.”
Rodriguez said no one should have to pay for a service that the government provides for free.
“We would advise folks to visit our website first for information about the processes that we have in place so they’re better informed about whether or not to pay a third party for passport services,” he said.
And give yourself a lot of extra time if you need a new or renewed passport.
Where can you make a passport appointment?
- Contact (877) 487-2778 to make a passport appointment with the State Department. Remember that wait times can be lengthy, so it’s best to call right when the department opens or a little bit before to get in the call queue. Representatives are available Monday through Friday, 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. Pacific, and on Saturdays and Sundays from 7 a.m. to noon. The department is closed on federal holidays.
- Various post offices, libraries and local government offices across the United States are organizing passport fairs. Most of these fairs cater to first-time customers and children who are using Form DS-11 to submit their passport applications.
- More than 8,000 U.S. passport acceptance facilities, which include post offices, libraries and local government offices, send passport document applications to the State Department. Don’t confuse that with the 26 regional passport agencies where you can make an appointment only if you have travel booked within 14 calendar days or need a foreign visa within 28 calendar days.
- Find your congressional district and representative to request passport application help.
- Use a passport expediter service, such as PassportsandVisas.com, which has a Los Angeles office. Courier or expediter services charge anywhere from $150 to $300 to handle and submit your passport application on your behalf. The services also have access to appointments set aside by the government to help serve disabled customers, those who are unable to leave work or those who have children.
Is there any way to speed up the passport process?
- Make sure your passport isn’t expiring before you book a trip. Once you realize that your passport may be expiring soon, try to make an appointment.
- You can check your application status online. You can also register for email updates. Status updates may not be available in the first two weeks after you submit your application.
- If you have a trip within two weeks, contact your local congressional representative to see if you can get expedited processing.
- Fee waivers for a replacement passport are available through the Disaster Recovery Reform Act if you lost your passport in a major disaster.
About The Times Utility Journalism Team
This article is from The Times’ Utility Journalism Team. Our mission is to be essential to the lives of Southern Californians by publishing information that solves problems, answers questions and helps with decision making. We serve audiences in and around Los Angeles — including current Times subscribers and diverse communities that haven’t historically had their needs met by our coverage.