I remembered the process of getting Julia’s passport several years ago as super simple, so when I sketched out a tentative plan for our parental leave that included a test flight to the South, followed by a European extravaganza, I didn’t really account for hiccups in the process. Given our recent experience acquiring James’ passport, I wanted to jot down some of my mistakes to help others. I’ll list steps we took, along with commentary on where things went a little awry.
*Spoiler – we did, in fact, get his passport before we left on our trip, but it was a close call
Step 1 – Get a birth certificate.
This is the first highly variable part of the process. For the Seattle area (and I assume it works similarly elsewhere) you fill out a request for a birth certificate at the hospital before you’re discharged. Then, the hospital has to send that paperwork to the county Office of Vital Statistics (King County’s website is here) in order for them to have a record of the birth. I called after James was born and the office told me that it typically takes 2-6 weeks (big range!) for this process to happen. I believe you have to pay a fee if they search and don’t find the record. When Julia was born, I didn’t realize you had to complete an extra step to get a birth certificate and assumed that simply filling out the form at the hospital was sufficient. Nope! You then have to either visit the office in person or order a copy online or via fax/phone. If you can, I would recommend going in person because you don’t have to pay astronomical “convenience” fees and you get the certificate almost immediately. They basically just do a quick search using a form you fill out when you go in. I went in when James was 3 weeks old and they had his record, so we paid $60 for 3 copies of his birth certificate (always good to have extras and avoid follow-up visits) and went home within 20 minutes of walking into the office.
Step 2 – Take a passport photo
The State Department has some nice guidelines here, but you’ll need at least 1 copy of a passport photo (they tell you to bring 2, but we’ve only ever needed one…) of your little traveler. Generally speaking, you need to:
- Have no one else in the photo (I used a bouncy seat/car seat with a white sheet draped over it to hold both kids up).
- Have baby facing forward, preferable with eyes open. Infants aren’t required to have eyes open, but getting them to reliably face forward is easier when they’re awake and happy.
- Have no objects in the photo – this means no pacifiers or toys, so it can be tough if you have a fussy little one.
- Have a neutral facial expression – this can be smiling, but no tongues sticking out, and presumably no screaming. Good luck!
- Have a clear picture (i.e., can’t be blurry or over/under exposed). I was able to do this with James by putting the bouncy seat in front of some natural light during the day and using burst mode on my phone so that he didn’t have too many shadows and he wasn’t moving too much.
- Have the appropriate dimensions and use photo paper (2×2″, along with some placement requirements). Peter did this for me using GIMP (a free version of Photoshop). There’s also a template on the State department website and a photo tool (you have to use a Microsoft browser) that can be helpful here.
Here are examples of both kids that were accepted:
Step 3 – Fill out the passport application
For kids under 16 years old, you’ll need to fill out the DS-11 (link to guidelines here). It’s a simple enough form, but…
Here’s where we went wrong: at the time we were applying, we hadn’t received James’ social security number yet. The directions on the form specifically say to input 000-00-0000 if that’s the case, but don’t say anything else (they also say a parent’s place of birth is an optional field when you fill it out online, but the clerk made us put those in). So, I did what was asked and we submitted our application with no issues. However, if you were to go and search through the FAQs (which aren’t on that page about kids under 16, by the way; I had to Google them to find this), you would see a question about children without social security numbers (link here). It turns out that if that situation applies to you, you also need to submit a signed and dated statement, which includes the phrase, “I declare under penalty of perjury under the laws of the United States of America that the following is true and correct: (Child’s full name) has never been issued a Social Security number by the Social Security Administration.” We didn’t do this because we didn’t know we needed to, and it ended up being the wrinkle in our plans.
Another tip: make sure to include your e-mail address so that you can get updates from the State department about your application.
Step 4 – Visit a passport office in person
Both parents need to go to the passport office together, or submit a notarized copy of form DS-3053 (more info here) saying that the non-attending parent consents. You also have to bring the child for whom you’re applying for a passport. The clerk will need to see them, and apparently there are cameras to potentially check that they did this (according to the clerk we saw), so keep that in mind if you have your baby in a carrier and their face is snuggled up against you. You have to bring several documents with you that are listed at the above link, but basically it’s your child’s birth certificate (an original and a copy; this proves they’re U.S. citizens and that you’re their parents), your IDs (and copies; proving that you are the people listed on their birth certificate), your completed application, photo of your child, and fees. You will need to pay with check or money order for the application fee, or with check/money order/cash in exact change for the execution fee (fees are paid separately, so you’ll need 2 checks). Our clerk was super helpful about making sure we had everything (except that social security number statement…) before she accepted the application.
A note on the fees: you can pay for regular service, or expedited service. For regular service, the office will tell you that it takes about 4-6 weeks from the time your application is accepted. Expedited service is roughly 2-3 weeks, and you can also pay for expedited return shipping. Julia’s application process several years ago was so smooth and took at most 3 weeks from when we applied with regular service, so given that we were applying on April 4th and our trip wasn’t until June 2nd, I didn’t bother paying for expediting. More on how this bit us in the butt below.
Step 5 – Track that status like a hawk and follow-up often if needed
You can track the status of your application online now (link here), which I don’t think was available several years ago when we applied for Julia’s passport (we also received it so quickly that I probably didn’t bother to look). You can also call the National Passport Information Center (NPIC) for status updates (their number is at the link above).
Here’s where our saga gets frustrating. We went on our family road trip and towards the end of the trip, we got an e-mailed letter from the State department (they also mailed the letter to our house) saying that our application was incomplete because we had not provided James’ social security number. It provided a spot to input the number, or said we needed to submit a statement indicating that one hadn’t been issued, and required that we mail the number back. We couldn’t respond from the road because we have a policy of not storing sensitive things like social security numbers in the cloud, so James’ social security card was locked up in the safe from when we had received it a week or two before we left, but well after we initially applied. We also didn’t have easy access to mailing supplies, but I would have made that happen if we’d had the number. I tried calling, but they won’t allow you to provide any information over the phone. So, the day we got back from our trip, I immediately mailed the form back, but I also called the NPIC (National Passport Information Center) after a week when the online status still hadn’t changed. It turns out that in an epic display of inefficiency, we submitted our application in Seattle, but it then gets mailed to an office in Virginia to be checked, and then mailed back to the Seattle Passport Agency for review and completion. So, we submitted the application in early April, but we didn’t get the letter from the State department until May 2. We responded as soon as we got back from our trip on May 8th, but the letter with our response didn’t get to Seattle until May 16th. The first person I spoke to wasn’t helpful and when I asked for expected time to completion, just gave me the standard “4-6 weeks from when your application was complete” response (which in their mind meant May 16th, not any time prior when they had the rest of the info, or when we submitted the application). I called the next day, however, and I got a much more helpful person. She offered to collect a $60 fee to expedite the passport, but also suggested that we just go to the Passport Agency downtown since our trip was in 2 weeks and ask them for the status. She even made an appointment for us! We all made a trip downtown the next day with a printout of our airline reservation and ended up spending more time going through Federal building security than actually in the office. The helpful person at the desk verified that we were traveling soon, that they had our passport application, and gave us a will call receipt to come and pick it up as soon as the next day (but only an hour before closing, so we waited a couple of days till we got back from a short trip).
Another way that we followed up, which ended up being irrelevant because of the quick Passport Agency visit, was to write to our Congresspeople. Apparently it’s a little-advertised service to constituents, but I basically just e-mailed a signed consent form to our rep and both senators requesting help checking on the status. In each case, someone got back to me within a week to let me know they had checked on the status and give me an update (brownie points to Maria Cantwell for a response in less than 24 hours). So, in the event of an emergency, I found that to be a potentially helpful resource.
Bonus Step – Apply for a Trusted Traveller Program
I think you could probably apply without a passport, but it’s easier with one since once you have a passport, I believe you’re required to provide that information. Your primary choices are TSA Pre check ($85 for 5 years), Global Entry ($100 for 5 years) and NEXUS (includes Global Entry, TSA Pre Check and comes with entry into Canada; $50 for 5 years) and a couple of others that are less applicable (see details here). We live very close to the Canadian border, so NEXUS has been great for us because it’s only $50 for adults and it’s free for children under 18 years old (whereas Global Entry is still $100). When we applied for Julia’s, they were using a different system and I could submit her application under my own account. This time around, their new system requires unique e-mail addresses for each account and unique accounts for each applicant, so I had to sign James up for his own e-mail address at the ripe old age of 3 months. NEXUS conditional approval takes longer than Global Entry (which we had before NEXUS because I didn’t realize how much better NEXUS is) because two countries have to make sure you’re not a criminal. If you’re driving over the border, everyone in the car needs their own NEXUS card, so it’s only useful in that regard if your infant has one. However, it’s still worth it for adults because kids under 12 can join the TSA Pre-Check line with their parents and it’s less expensive than other options. As another note, make sure to bring birth certificates to your appointment. They’re only listed as an example of how you might prove citizenship, but the Canadian interviewer when we visited a few years ago tried to tell us it was a requirement and acted like it was a huge favor to approve us without that documentation (we had our passports that prove citizenship, and we had Julia’s birth certificate to prove our relationship to her, but we didn’t have our own birth certificates).
Based on our experience:
- If possible, wait until you have both a birth certificate and a social security number for your child because it’s less complicated. If you don’t have a SSN, make sure you submit a specific, signed statement to that effect (see example above)
- If you’re traveling anytime soon, fork up the hefty fee to expedite the application because they’re going to mail that thing all over the country before looking at it. Then you can at least get earlier notice if there’s a problem.
Other people’s common pitfalls that I’ve read about include not bringing one of the parents (or the documents that would facilitate that situation) or the child applying for the passport, having a photo that doesn’t meet the requirements, or not bringing appropriate payment methods (you can’t pay by credit card even though it’s 2019, people!).