It's happened. You land a great deal on a last-minute trip to Paris…and your passport is about to expire. Other dilemmas: You're invited for Carnival in Rio, but your passport isn't valid for six months past your departure date, as it must be to meet Brazil's regulations. Or you travel so often and on such short notice that you dare not part with that slim blue book for the three to four weeks required for a standard renewal.
Even when a passport application or renewal isn't so urgent, the process can seem daunting, both for citizens on a quest for information and for the Office of Passport Services, which expects to issue a record 6 million documents this year, the majority of them between April and July. Here's how to streamline the procedure.
What are the handiest sources of information?
• There's lots of information on the application itself, which is available at a post office or court listed in the phone book in the U.S. Government Offices section under "Passports." Or you can call or visit one of the 13 U.S. passport agencies, located in Boston, Chicago, Honolulu, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Stamford, and Washington, D.C.
• Consult the Department of State's Internet site (http://travel.state.gov), where you can also download an application.
• Call the National Passport Information Center at 900/225-5674. The per-minute charge is 35 cents for the automated system and $1.05 to speak with a human being. Or call 888/362-8668 to speak to an operator at a flat rate of $4.95 per call on a credit card. Operators can also track the status of paperwork.
What are the three fastest ways to apply for or renew a passport?
• If you have plane tickets that prove imminent departure, you can visit one of the 13 passport offices for three-day "expedited" service, for a $30 surcharge. A tighter turnaround is sometimes possible, but not guaranteed. Note: The New York office accepts paperwork only from travelers who are leaving within 14 days, and requires an appointment; Miami and Los Angeles plan to establish a similar policy this year.
• If you're over 18, you can usually renew a passport within one week via overnight mail to the National Passport Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Frequent travelers use this process to ensure that they don't spend more than a week without a passport.
• Use an expediting service such as Passport Plus, in New York City, or CIBT, with locations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, Atlanta, New York, Washington, D.C., and Miami. Such services spare you a wait in line, confirm that your paperwork is in order, and track it through the system. The agencies rely on a good working relationship with passport officials.
What if my passport is just about filled with stamps and visas but doesn't expire for another 18 months?
• You can have extra-page document, at no extra charge.