Since last January, when the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative went into effect, every American-even a newborn-is required to have a passport for re-entry into the United States from foreign trips. That explains why passport-office lines are 33 percent longer than they were last year, and the average processing time has stretched to 12 weeks (up from 6 weeks in 2006). Before dragging your kids into the queue, here's what you need to know:
You can download the forms online at travel.state.gov, and fill them out at home. Caveat: You'll still have to submit them in person at a passport facility (an approved post office, library, or county clerks' office; for locations, see iafdb.travel.state.gov). Be aware that not all passport sites have devastingly long lines, so if you end up at one with an all-day wait, move on. A suburban post office is a good bet.
Your child needs to be with you during the application process, and both parents must be present unless one has sole-custody documentation.
If the trip date is nearly here, you can pay a $60 rush fee (on top of the standard charge of $97 for adults, $82 for kids) for delivery in two to three weeks. Write EXPEDITE on the outside of your application envelope-and cross your fingers.
Independent expediters (find them at napvs.org) charge $45 to $295 to turn the government wheels. In some cases, you'll get your passport the next day.