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Getting Your First Passport

Also see: Passports for Kids Under 14, Passports for Teens

In the past, passports were an optional item for Americans headed to Caribbean. No more! Beginning in 2007, you’ll need a valid passport to RETURN to the US from any Caribbean trip (that means for both sea and air travel, regardless of your age.)

NOTE: Remember, this new passport requirement doesn’t include Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands, since both are part of the US.

Getting into the Caribbean, the entry requirements vary from country to country but none require anything more than a valid passport. American citizens don’t need to worry about visas for any Caribbean island.

Obtaining a Passport

To obtain a passport, you may apply in person at the nearest passport office (see chart) or at one of the several thousand federal or state courts or U.S. post offices authorized to accept passport applications. Not every post office will accept passport applications; it’s usually one of the largest offices in the city. For your first passport application, you must apply in person.

We can’t stress enough the importance of applying for a passport early. The heaviest demand period is January through August (because of summer travel), with September through December being the speediest period. Even during the latter, however, you should allow at least eight weeks for your passport application to be processed. With today’s increasing security, it is more important than ever to apply for a passport months before your travel date.

How to Get Your First Passport

If this will be your first passport, you’ll have to apply in person. You can search the Department of State’s website which includes 6000 passport acceptance offices to find the one closest to you.

When you make your application, you’ll need to bring with you a certified birth certificate issued by the city, county or state. What’s a certified birth certificate? One with a registrar's raised, embossed, impressed or multicolored seal, registrar’s signature, and the date the certificate was filed with the registrar's office, which must be within 1 year of your birth. If you were board abroad, you’ll need a Consular Report of Birth Abroad or Certification of Birth.

Also, you can provide citizenship with a Naturalization Certificate or Certificate of Citizenship if you became a US citizen later in life. If you don’t have the above information, it’s a little more complicated; check out the State Department site for other documents you can substitute .

You’ll also have to bring proof of identity which can be:

  • Current, valid Driver's license
  • A Previous U.S. passport (mutilated, altered, or damaged passports are not acceptable as proof of identity)
  • Naturalization Certificate
  • Certificate of Citizenship
  • Government ID: city, state or federal
  • Military ID: military and dependents

    NOTE: Your Social Security Card does NOT prove your identity

You’ll also need two passport pictures. Don’t just grab any old snapshots, though; there are certain specifications for these photos. (The easiest thing to do is visit your local print shop or chain drug store; most make passport photos in minutes for just a few dollars.) Passport photos must be:

  • 2x2 inches in size
  • Identical
  • Taken within the past 6 months, showing current appearance
  • In color
  • Show your full face, front view with a plain white or off-white background
  • Allow between 1 inch and 1 3/8 inches from the bottom of the chin to the top of the head
  • Show you in normal street attire (no uniforms, sunglasses, hats, etc.)

How Long Does It Take?

The time frame can vary by time of year (expect early spring to be slow as travelers look ahead to European summer trips) but the State Department says to allow six weeks to receive your passport.

In a hurry? They offer an expediting service for $60 which trims the delivery time (if you pay for overnight delivery) to two weeks.

In even a bigger hurry? The fastest way to get a passport is to get it at one of the 13 passport agencies. You have to have an appointment but there is no charge for an appointment. These offices are just for travelers who are traveling with two weeks.



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