Traveling out of the country? Before you pack your suitcase and jet off, you’ll need to get a passport. But getting a passport, whether you’re applying for your first one or renewing your dog-eared, stamp-filled travel companion, can be a complicated process.

“A lot of people tend to put it off,” says Zach Honig, the editor-at-large at The Points Guy, a travel advice website. But, Honig adds, it’s “definitely worth the effort.”

So, how do you get a passport? Can you do it online or do you have to visit a passport agency? What goes into the passport application? How and when do you renew your passport? And do you get to keep your old passport when you get a new one? We’re going to break it down step-by-step and by situation.

But the first step is universal for nearly everyone. For starters, you’ll need to find an official passport acceptance facility (usually a post office, public library, or local government office that submits passport applications on behalf of the State Department) to get the process started. And to make the process go as smoothly as possible, you’ll need a pretty substantial list of documents filled out and ready to go.

Here’s the list of what you’ll need to officially apply for your first passport, according to the State Department:

  • A completed DS-11 form.
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship, such as a birth certificate (these other documents also qualify) and a clean, legible, black-and-white photocopy of this document on 8.5 by 11-inch paper.
  • Proof of identification, such as a driver’s license or these other qualifying documents and a photocopy of the front and back (also black and white and on 8.5 by 11-inch paper) of your identification.
  • A color passport photo: they should be two inches by two inches; many pharmacies and post offices offer passport photo services at reasonable prices, so you don’t have to attempt taking yours at home. For all the passport photos requirements (for example, you can’t wear a hat or glasses), see the State Department’s guide.
  • Passport fees: most first-time adult applications cost $135, but there is an official passport fee calculator so you can be sure.

That can seem like a lot of paperwork, so “double and triple check that you have all the documentation necessary and if you can, make an appointment in advance,” Lonely Planet destination editor Sarah Stocking suggests.

How long does it take to get your passport? The State Department estimates a passport takes four to six weeks to process from the time you turn in your application (including the time it takes to mail it back to you), so leave plenty of time, especially in spring, when many people are preparing for the busy summer travel season.

Passport Renewal

If just the thought of catching an international flight with a soon-to-expire passport makes you anxious, leave ample time to renew (the government recommends renewing your passport nine months before it expires). Unlike the process of getting your first passport, you don’t have to go to an official facility in person. Rather, to renew a passport, you can simply mail in all your documents. That is, if you have your old passport, it’s in decent shape beyond the usual wear-and-tear, it was issued when you were older than 16 and within the last 15 years, and your name hasn’t changed. If you can check all of those off, you’ll need to include the following in the mail to renew a passport:

  • A filled out DS-82 form.
  • Your old passport.
  • A regulation size passport photo.
  • And a $110 renewal fee.

If you have changed your name since getting your last passport, you can include official proof of the name change, such as a marriage certificate, divorce certificate or court-ordered name change document.

How long does it take to get a passport renewed? Once you’ve submitted all of the above, it generally takes the same amount of time as a first-time passport—four to six weeks — from the date of application through mailing, to get your new passport. Globetrotters with lots of passport stamps who want to hang onto their old passport as a memento should know that old passports do get returned (usually with a hole punched in the cover), though MaSovaida Morgan, Lonely Planet’s South America editor, recommends slapping a sticky note on the cover expressing you’d definitely like to have your old copy sent back, just for good measure.

If you don’t have your old passport, you’ll have to treat a passport renewal like a first-time passport application, filling out the DS-11 form and going in-person to a passport acceptance facility.

Think you’re in the clear in terms of passport renewal? Check again, since “you can’t necessarily travel right up to your passport expiration date,” explains Trisha Ping, Lonely Planet’s editor for the Eastern USA. In fact, “many countries won’t let you enter if your passport’s expiration date is within three or even six months of your departure.”

Japan, for example, “requires your passport be valid for the duration of your visit,” Honig, of The Points Guy, adds. It’s possible an airline will let you book, check in and even fly to your destination with an out-of-date passport, he adds, so it’s really your responsibility to stay on top of date requirements. “A foreign country isn’t going to hesitate to put you back on a plane [home], perhaps at your own expense.”

It’s also worth noting that even if your passport is valid, you could still need to get a visa to enter your destination country. “Visas are a different beast,” Honig says, but luckily “visas are still valid even if they’re in an expired passport.” So if you have an expired passport with a current visa, it’s good to get your old passport back with your renewed passport.

Bottom line: Leave plenty of time to get your passport renewed, check the expiration date on your passport even if you think you’re good to go, and research the passport and visa requirements of the country you’re planning to visit.

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