WASHINGTON (AP) — Looking for a valid U.S. passport for that 2023 trip? Buckle up, pious traveler, for a very different journey before you approach an airport.
A much-feared backup of US passport applications has crashed into a wall of government bureaucracy as global travel rebounds to pre-pandemic record highs – with too few humans to handle the load. The result, say aspiring travelers in the United States and around the world, is a maddening pre-trip purgatory defined, at best, by costly uncertainty.
With family dreams and lots of money on the line, passport applicants describe a slow-motion agony of waiting, worrying, holding the line, refreshing the screen, complaining to Congress, paying extra fees and following incorrect instructions. Some applicants are buying extra plane tickets to get passports being processed where they are seated – in other cities – in time to fly the flights they booked in the first place.
The outlook is so bleak that US officials aren’t even denying the problem or predicting when it will subside. They attribute the epic wait times to ongoing pandemic-related staffing shortages and a pause in online processing this year. This left the passport agency inundated with a record 500,000 requests per week. The deluge is on track to exceed 22 million passports issued last year, according to the State Department.
Applicant stories and Associated Press interviews describe a crisis management system, in which agencies prioritize urgent cases such as applicants traveling for “life or death” reasons and those whose travel is only a few days. For everyone else, the options are few and expensive.
So 2023 traveler, if you still need a valid US passport, be prepared for an unplanned excursion into the nightmare zone.
“LOTS OF TIME” FOR “WE WILL ALWAYS BE GOOD” TO BIG PROBLEMS
It was early March when Dallas-area florist Ginger Collier requested four passports ahead of a family vacation in late June. The clerk, she said, estimated wait times at eight to 11 weeks. They would have their passports a month before they needed them. “A lot of time,” Collier remembers thinking.
Then the State Department increased the waiting time for a regular passport to 13 weeks. “We’re still fine,” she thought.
With T-minus two weeks to travel, here’s his assessment: “I can’t sleep.” This after months of calling, waiting, updating on a website, trying out her congressman – and stressing as the departure date approached. Not getting the family’s passports would mean losing $4,000, she said, as well as the chance to meet one of her sons in Italy after a semester of study abroad.
“My nerves are shot because I may not be able to reach it,” she said. She calls the toll-free number every day, takes up to 90 minutes to be told — at best — that she might be able to get a required appointment at passport offices in other states.
“I can’t afford four more plane tickets anywhere in the United States to get a passport when I applied on time,” she said. “What if they were just processing my passports?”
THE US GOVERNMENT HAS A GUILTY: COVID
In March, worried travelers began demanding answers and then seeking help, including from their representatives in the House and Senate, who widely reported in hearings this year that they were receiving more complaints. of voters regarding passport delays than any other issue.
The US Secretary of State had an answer, of sorts.
“With COVID, the bottom has pretty much disappeared from the system,” Antony Blinken told a House subcommittee on March 23. When travel demand all but disappeared during the pandemic, he said, the government let contractors go and reassigned staff who had been dedicated to processing passports.
Around the same time, the government also discontinued an online renewal system “to make sure we can tweak it and improve it,” Blinken said. He said the department is hiring officers as quickly as possible, opening more appointments and trying to resolve the crisis in other ways.
Passport applicants lit up lawmakers’ social media groups, toll-free numbers and phone lines with questions, cries for help and pleas for help. Facebook and WhatsApp groups bristled with reports of bewilderment and fury. Reddit posted tantalizing logs, some over 1,000 words, dates applied, deposits submitted, contacts made, time waited, money spent, and calls for advice.
It was in 1952 that a law required, for the first time, a passport for all American travelers abroad, even in times of peace. Now, passports are processed at centers across the country and printed at secure facilities in Washington, DC and Mississippi, according to the Government Printing Office.
But the number of Americans with valid US passports has grown about 10% faster than the population over the past three decades, according to Jay Zagorsky, an economist at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.
After passport delays derailed his own travel plans to London earlier this year, Zagorsky found that the number of US passports per American had risen from about three per 100 people in 1989 to nearly 46 per 100 people. in 2022. Americans, it turns out, are on the move.
“As a society gets richer,” says Zagorsky, “people in that society say, ‘I want to visit the rest of the world.'”
FOR AMERICANS AND OTHERS ABROAD, THIS IS NOT A PICNIC, EITHER
At American consulates abroad, the quest for American visas and passports is not much brighter.
On a day in June, residents of New Delhi could expect to wait 451 days for a visa interview, according to the website. Those in Sao Paulo could expect to wait over 600 days. Budding travelers in Mexico City expected around 750 days; in Bogota, Colombia, it was 801 days.
In Israel, the need is particularly acute. More than 200,000 people with citizenship of both countries live in Israel. It’s one appointment per person, even for newborns, who must have both parents involved in the process, before traveling to the United States.
Batsheva Gutterman began looking for three dates immediately after having a baby in December, with the goal of attending her sister’s wedding in July, in Raleigh, North Carolina.
His quest for three passports stretched from January to June, days before the trip. And it only got resolved after Gutterman paid a small fee to join a WhatsApp group that alerted her to new appointments, which only remain available for a few seconds. She finally got three dates on three consecutive days – bureaucracy incarnate.
“We had to drive the whole family with three young children, an hour and a half to Tel Aviv three days in a row, leaving work and school,” she said. “It makes me incredibly uncomfortable to have a baby in Israel as an American citizen, knowing that there’s no way I could fly with this baby until we get lucky. with an appointment.”
Recently, there seems to have been some progress. The wait for a renewed US passport appointment was 360 days on June 8. By July 2, the wait had dropped to 90 days, according to the website.
FRUSTRATED STORIES EMERGING FROM THE TRENCHES
Back in the United States, Marni Larsen of Holladay, Utah, lined up in Los Angeles, California, on June 14, hoping to get her son’s passport. That way, she hoped, the couple could meet the rest of their family, who had already left as planned for Europe, for a long-planned vacation.
She had applied for her son’s passport two months earlier and spent weeks checking for updates online or through a frustrating appeal system. As the mid-June vacation approached, Larsen contacted Sen. Mitt Romney’s office, where one of four people he says is assigned full-time to passport issues, was able to find the document at the New Orleans.
It was to be shipped to Los Angeles, where she secured an appointment to pick it up. This meant that Larsen had to buy new tickets for her and her son in Los Angeles and redirect their trip from there to Rome. All while betting that his son’s passport has been sent as promised.
“We’re just waiting in this massive line of tons of people,” Larsen said. “It’s just been a nightmare.”
They succeeded. But not everyone was so lucky.
Miranda Richter applied in person to renew her and her husband’s passports, as well as applying for a new one on February 9 for a trip with their neighbors to Croatia on June 6. She ended up canceling, losing over $1,000.
Her timeline went like this: her husband and daughter’s passports arrived in 11 weeks, while Richter’s photo was rejected. On May 4, she sent a new one by priority mail. Then she paid an emergency fee of $79, which was never charged to her credit card. Between May 30 and June 2, four days before the trip, Richter and her husband spent more than 12 hours on the National Passport Line while calling their congressman, senators and third-party couriers.
Finally, she showed up in person at the Federal Building in downtown Houston, 30 minutes before the passport office opened. Richter said there were at least 100 people online.
“The security guard asked me when my appointment was, and I burst into tears,” she recalls. She couldn’t get one. “It did not work.”
FINALLY: A HAPPY END
“I just received my passports!” Texts by Ginger Collier.
She ended up showing up at the Dallas passport office with her daughter-in-law at 6:30 a.m. and were split into groups and lined up against the walls. Eventually they were called to a window, where the officer was “super nice” and pulled out the family’s four applications – documents that had been sitting in the office since March 17. More than seven hours later, the two left the office with instructions. to collect their passport the next day.
They did it – with four days to spare.
“What a ridiculous process,” Collier says. Nevertheless, the reunion with his son in Italy was sweet. She texted last week: “That was the best hug ever!”
Kellman reported from Tel Aviv, Israel, Santana reported from Washington, and Koenig reported from Dallas. Follow Kellman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/AP Laurie Kellman, Santana at http://twitter.com/russkygal and Koenig at http://twitter.com/airlinewriter.