Passport renewal can be confusing — here's what you need to know.

By Alison Fox
February 11, 2020
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If you have dreams of jetting off to exotic places this year, you’re going to have to do one thing first — make sure you have a valid passport.

Last year, more than 146 million Americans had a valid passport, which is way up from 1989 when only about 7.3 million Americans had one, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs.

Plus, the State Department has been processing more and more passports. In the 2019 fiscal year alone, the agency received 18.5 million applications for passports.

Whether you're renewing your passport or applying for the first time, there are a few things you should know first. A spokesman for the State Department spoke with Travel + Leisure and told us what to know when applying for a passport (and what common mistakes to avoid).

Credit: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Apply for a renewal by mail.

Adults who are applying to renew their 10-year passports should do so by mail. According to the State Department, you should fill out the DS-82 form, found online, and send that in with a new photo, a check, and your old passport (in most cases you will get your old passport sent back as a keepsake).

You can also change your name on your new passport as long as you include that form with a certified copy of a legal document (like a marriage certificate or court document).

Remember to sign the first page of the application — forgetting this signature is one of the most common mistakes people make when renewing.

Make sure you apply in time.

To ensure you have your passport in time to leave the country, keep processing durations in mind. Routine passport renewals cost $110 and are currently taking six to eight weeks to process. An expedited renewal is $170 and takes two to three weeks.

If you’re in a bind and need to travel within two weeks, you can make an appointment at one of the 26 passport agencies throughout the country. To get one of these expedited passports, you will need to bring your photo with you and show proof of travel or proof of an emergency.

Check your expiration date.

It’s important to renew your passport with plenty of time before it expires or fills up. The State Department recommends starting the application process about one year before your passport expires to avoid any unnecessary stress. The agency also stopped issuing extra pages in 2016, so if your passport is starting to fill up, consider applying for a new one.

Many countries also require your passport be valid for at least six months past your dates of travel, so it’s best not to wait.

Take a clear photo.

The State Department requires passport photos to be clear, taken on a completely white background, and free of accessories like glasses. The photo should also be taken within the six months prior to your application, and you should be wearing street clothes. Watch out for under or overexposed photos, which is one of the most common issues people face when applying for a passport.

If you’re applying for the first time...

If this is your first time getting a passport, you will have to apply in person. You can apply at one of the more than 7,000 passport acceptance facilities, like post offices and public libraries, and you will need to submit your original birth certificate, not a copy.

If you’re renewing for a child...

If you're completing a passport application for a child under 16 years old, the application must be done in person with both parents accompanying the child. These passports are valid for just five years (as opposed to 10 years for adults).

If the parents can't complete this process together, they can fill out several different forms, depending on the extenuating circumstances.

If you lose your passport...

If you lose your passport while you’re abroad, contact the closest embassy or consulate and make your way there. The office can issue a temporary emergency passport that will allow you to travel back to the U.S. Once back in the country, you can turn in your temporary passport, and you will be sent a standard passport.