If you have plans for international travel soon but don’t have an updated passport, it’s time to figure out Plan B this summer.
Routine service to get or renew a passport is now quoted at 18 weeks and expedited processing is 12 weeks, which comes at a $60 premium, according to the State Department’s website.
That’s because the department is still working through a backlog of as many as 2 million applications.
“This means people who submit new passport applications right now will not get their new passport until well into the fall,” Rachel Arndt, deputy assistant secretary for the Passport Services Bureau, announced. "U.S. citizens who wish to travel overseas this summer and do not currently have a passport may need to make alternate travel plans."
For those truly in a bind who don’t have an up-to-date passport but have an international departure scheduled within three days, the agency is offering expedited in-person “limited appointments” with priority given to those with “life-or-death emergencies,” Arndt said.
'Automation across the public sector is a must'
Currently, the Department’s call center has been inundated with an “extremely high call volume” and posted a forewarning that wait times are “longer-than-usual” on its website. And seeking help online isn’t much easier.
This week, the Department removed the option for Americans to book last-minute passport appointments online in a play to stop bots and third-parties from scooping up appointments only to turn a profit on the desperate masses.
State officials are pinning the bottleneck on mail delays, citing the pandemic as the culprit, and also attribute the lag to staffing disruptions at home and abroad in embassies and consulates.
Adding to this is the fact that only 11.5 million Americans applied for passports in 2020 — the fewest number on record since 2005 — and roughly 7 million under 2019’s application volume, according to the State Department.
To address the new application volume surge, Arndt explained that the State Department is “ramping up” staffing with more than 150 government employees and contractors scheduled to return to quickly increase processing capacity while adhering to evolving COVID restrictions as staffers cannot work remotely.
“As we bring more staff back into the office, we will continue to be as transparent as possible in updating the American public on how long it will take to get a passport,” Arndt said.
In order to secure a valid passport, the State Department is suggesting that applications be sent “at least six months before planned travel.” If you don’t have the luxury of time, send in your application with trackable mail and pay an extra $17.56 for overnight or two-day delivery service of your passport. Applicants can check their status online only, as “customer service representatives will not give status updates over the phone,” the department stated.
And while the pandemic is largely responsible for the passport bottleneck, critics say the time is ripe for a system-wide modernization. Considering applications are still paper-based, the manual effort required to decipher illegible penmanship and process requests is time consuming, according to Brendan MacCarthy, public sector AVP at Hyperscience, a software platform that develops AI to sort and process documents more quickly.
“COVID slowdowns in 2020 has brought with it a deluge of applications, unemployment claims, retirement account withdrawals, and now passport requests or renewals,” MacCarthy said.
“When local, state, and federal agencies experience a surge in applications — as we're seeing with passports — outdated, manual operations can't keep up with these unexpected peak times,” he said. “Automation across the public sector is a must, rather than a nice to have.”