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Leaving SF for a Vacation Abroad? Here’s How to Navigate the Overwhelmed Passport Bureaucracy

Written by Anna TongPublished Jun. 21, 2022 • 10:30am
Multiple United States of America passports. | Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

As summer travel heats up, the double whammy of short-handed governmental agencies and pent-up travel demand has led to unexpected delays in getting a passport, forcing some vacationers to cancel their long-awaited summer plans.

Passport appointments are such hot commodities that the State Department, the federal agency responsible for issuing passports, disabled their online booking system, saying that third parties were taking all the bookings and then selling them on the black market.

A State Department spokesperson blamed the lack of appointments on Covid and said they are working on improving their passport services. 

“I’ve had people break down in tears. I’ve had people threaten to go do something—to which I say, ‘Do not go make a ruckus at a post office, because you’d be committing a federal crime,’” said Phillip Monares, who helps people obtain passports through his company, Bay Document Services. “People who never checked to see if their passports are valid may have just lost all the money they invested in a family vacation.”

In order to renew their  passports on short notice, people with the means to do so are resorting to desperate measures. It’s not unusual for his customers to fly to Arizona, Texas or even as far as Hawaii for an open appointment with the federal passport agency, Monares said. Another customer rerouted his trip to Europe via Buffalo, N.Y. 

Adults who plan ahead can bypass the inconvenience of waiting in long lines because they can renew passports via mailing them in. However, current processing times are eight to 11 weeks, and expedited processing times are five to seven weeks, according to a State Department spokesperson. Before Covid, routine processing times were only six to eight weeks.

Adults who don’t plan ahead may get a passport within two weeks of travel, either by lucking out into a last-minute appointment with a passport agency—in San Francisco, the agency is located at the federal building at 450 Golden Gate Ave.—or by paying a passport expediter around $700.

Need a passport ASAP? 

  • If it’s a life-or-death situation (you’ll need proof), you may be able to get a passport within three days of travel.
  • If you have an existing passport, do not mail it in: it can take up to three months to get a new one right now. You’ll need to call to make in-person appointment with one of the state department’s local passport agencies or otherwise pay for a passport expediting service. If you are able to get an in-person appointment, you can usually get your new passport book on the same day. If you pay for a passport expediting service, they can get you a new passport within two weeks of travel, because they have special access to the passport agency.
  • If the passport is for a child under 16, or if you don’t have an existing passport (either because you lost it or you are a first-time applicant), you’ll need to first go to a “passport acceptance facility,” where you will bring required documents like birth certificates. In San Francisco, there is only one such facility, a post office in the Bayview (at 1300 Evans St.) that accepts walk-ins.

The worst bureaucratic horrors are reserved for those required to apply for passports in-person, which mostly affects families with minors under 16 and those who have never had a passport before. These individuals must first get various documents verified at a passport acceptance facility. There are four in San Francisco, all of which are booked out at least one month. Only one facility, the post office at 1300 Evans Ave., takes walk-in appointments.

San Francisco resident Kevin Law said he showed up with his infant and toddler early in the morning, shortly after the post office opened. There was only one employee processing passport applications, and that person could only process walk-ins in between appointments, so an entire hour went by without accepting any walk-ins. Finally, the postmaster took pity on Law’s family and asked another employee to help process their application.

“There’s no businesses in that area, and there’s no public bathroom in the post office,” he said. “You’ve got these families with small children waiting for hours and hours.”

Families like Law’s then get routed back into the State Department’s bureaucracy. For those who can’t wait for mail-in processing times, they must make another in-person appointment at a passport agency, but they don’t accept walk-ins, either. And it's even hard to find out if there are appointments to begin with: Law said that when he called, he was told they would only tell him whether or not there were appointments if he was flying within two weeks.

This is where a passport-expediting company like Bay Document Services can help. Owner Monares says that there are roughly 25 such companies in San Francisco, and hefty fees are normal. His company charges $650 to obtain a passport within two weeks of travel. 

When will this state of affairs return to normal? The State Department says they “have made great strides throughout the pandemic to lower passport processing times and are on track to return processing to pre-pandemic service time standards.”

And Monares says that things were worse earlier this year.

“Believe it or not, it’s gotten better,” he said. “But still, if families are trying to travel by August 15, they need to be calling me right now.”

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