Seeking a valid U.S. passport for that 2023 trip? Buckle up, wishful traveler, for a very different journey before you step anywhere near an airport.
A much-feared backup of U.S passport applications has smashed into a wall of government bureaucracy as worldwide travel rebounds toward record pre-pandemic levels — with too few humans to handle the load. The result, say aspiring travelers in the U.S. and around the world, is a maddening pre-travel purgatory defined, at best, by costly uncertainty.
With family dreams and big money on the line, passport seekers describe a slow-motion agony of waiting, worrying, holding the line, refreshing the screen, complaining to Congress, paying extra fees and following incorrect directions. Some applicants are buying additional plane tickets to snag in-process passports where they sit — in other cities — in time to make the flights they booked in the first place.
So grim is the outlook that U.S. officials aren't even denying the problem or predicting when it will ease. They're blaming the epic wait times on lingering pandemic -related staffing shortages and a pause of online processing this year. That’s left the passport agency flooded with a record-busting 500,000 applications a week. The deluge is on-track to top last year’s 22 million passports issued, the State Department says.
It was early March when Dallas-area florist Ginger Collier applied for four passports ahead of a family vacation at the end of June. The clerk, she said, estimated wait times at eight to 11 weeks. They'd have their passports a month before they needed them. "Plenty of time," Collier recalled thinking.
Then the State Department upped the wait time for a regular passport to as much as 13 weeks. "We'll still be okay," she thought.
At two weeks to travel, this was Collier's assessment: "I can’t sleep." Failure to obtain the family’s passports would mean losing $4,000, she said, as well as the chance to meet one of her sons in Italy after a study-abroad semester. "My nerves are shot, because I may not be able to get to him," she said. She calls the toll-free number every day, holds for as much as 90 minutes to be told — at best — that she might be able to get a required appointment at passport offices in other states.
"I can’t afford four more plane tickets anywhere in the United States to get a passport when I applied in plenty of time," she said.
By March, concerned travelers began asking for answers and then demanding help, including from their representatives in the House and Senate, who widely reported at hearings this year that they were receiving more complaints from constituents on passport delays than any other issue.
The U.S. secretary of state had an answer, of a sort.
"With COVID, the bottom basically dropped out of the system," Antony Blinken told a House subcommittee March 23. When demand for travel all but disappeared during the pandemic, he said, the government let contractors go and reassigned staff that had been dedicated to handling passports.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies during a House Appropriations Committee hearing on the State Department 2024 budget at Capitol Hill on March 23, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Sha Hanting/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images)
Around the same time, the government also halted an online renewal system "to make sure that we can fine tune it and improve it," Blinken said. He said the department is hiring agents as quickly as possible, opening more appointments and trying to address the crisis in other ways.
Passport applicants lit up social media groups, toll-free numbers and lawmakers' phone lines with questions, appeals for advice and cries for help.
At U.S. consulates overseas, the quest for U.S. visas and passports isn't much brighter.
On a day in June, people in New Delhi could expect to wait 451 days for a visa interview, according to the website. Those in Sao Paulo could plan on waiting more than 600 days. Aspiring travelers in Mexico City were waiting about 750 days; in Bogota, Colombia, it was 801 days.
In Israel, the need is especially acute. More than 200,000 people with citizenship in both countries live in Israel. On July 2,
Batsheva Gutterman started looking for appointments immediately after she had a baby in December, with an eye toward attending her sister's wedding in July, in Raleigh, N.C. Her quest for three passports stretched from January to June, days before travel. And it only resolved after Gutterman payed a small fee to join a WhatsApp group that alerted her to new appointments, which stay available for only a few seconds.
She ultimately got three appointments on three consecutive days — bureaucracy embodied.
"This makes me incredibly uneasy having a baby in Israel as an American citizen, knowing there is no way I can fly with that baby until we get lucky with an appointment," she said.
There appeared to be some progress. The wait for an appointment for a renewal on June 8 stood at 360 days. By July 2, the wait was 90 days, according to the web site.
Back in the U.S., Marni Larsen of Holladay, Utah, stood in line in Los Angeles, California, on June 14, in hopes of snagging her son's passport. That way, she hoped, the pair could meet the rest of their family, who had already left as scheduled for Europe, for a long-planned vacation.
She'd applied for her son's passport two months earlier and spent weeks checking for updates online or through a frustrating call system. As the mid-June vacation loomed, Larsen reached out to Sen. Mitt Romney ’s office, where one of four people he says is assigned full-time to passport issues were able to track down the document in New Orleans.
It was supposed to be shipped to Los Angeles, where she got an appointment to retrieve it. That meant Larsen had to buy new tickets for herself and her son to Los Angeles and reroute their trip from there to Rome. All on a bet that her son's passport was indeed shipped as promised.
"We are just waiting in this massive line of tons of people," Larsen said. "It’s just been a nightmare."
They succeeded. And Ginger Collier? She found her happy ending. "I just got my passports!" she texted. A seven-hour visit at the passport office in Dallas, plus a return the next day, produced the passports with four days to spare.
"What a ridiculous process," Collier said. Nevertheless, the reunion with her son in Italy was sweet. She texted last week: "It was the best hug ever!"