If you don’t already have a (US) passport, stop everything you’re doing and focus on this before any more trip planning. Seriously. There have been many delays at the passport issuance offices recently due to tighter restrictions at the Canadian and Mexican borders and wait times can be more than a month, not including shipping time. Even crossing over for a trip to Montreal from a neighboring state now requires adults to provide a passport to the border guard as of January 2008, so make sure to have your application and documents sent in at least two months before your scheduled departure. For longer trips overseas, it is also a good idea to renew your passport if it will expire within six months of your travel date.
If you’re reading this two weeks before leaving and don’t yet have a passport, there are a few options through private companies who charge a fee for expedited service.
Don’t forget that you’ll need two passport photos as well. These can often be obtained at any Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid or most places with a photo center. They should cost about $10-$15 for both.
For a first-time passport you will need to prove your identity and submit a completed application in-person at one of 9,000 available locations. Make sure not to sign the application until you are in the presence of the Passport Acceptance Agent and they instruct you to sign.
To make the process go as smoothly and quickly as possible, arrive at your local US Postal Service’s passport office with these things in-hand:
- Completed, unsigned, application
- Birth Certificate / Naturalization Certificate, or Certificate of Citizenship
- Valid Driver’s License / State ID, or Military ID
- Two passport photos
If you don’t have all these items available, check out the guidelines for other options.
For those simply renewing a passport, the application can most likely be processed by mail. Your original passport must be surrendered along with the application. If it’s been lost or stolen, and this is not possible, you’ll have to start all over again as if applying for a first-time issuance. There are also a few other restrictions, so check them out and download a renewal application here.
Once you’re turned everything in, you can track the progress of your passport application online.
If your passport is lost or stolen while you’re traveling, report it to the local police immediately, then go to the nearest embassy. It is a good idea to leave a copy of the front picture page of your passport with a friend or family member, in case it needs to be faxed to the embassy for a quick replacement.
Most places you will visit require a travel visa for entry into the country. For US, Canadian and EU citizens, there are a wide variety of nations that will automatically grant a tourist visa upon arrival in an airport, train station, etc. Most are for three months and restrict travelers from working in the country. It is usually a simple stamp on one of the pages of your passport, placed there by a border agent. You might be asked a few questions first, don’t be nervous, just answer honestly. (Unless you’re smuggling something illegal…then you may just want to rethink your life plan.)
However, there are some countries which will require a more elaborate travel visa along with a formal application for entry.
Check your destination’s entry requirements as soon as possible to see if you will require a visa to be processed before your arrival. This is important because some countries will paste the visa directly into your passport…so if you haven’t processed your passport application yet, you’ll have nothing to give them. Further, the visa application itself can take weeks to be processed, so you will need quite a lot of lead time to ensure you don’t get turned away at the airport.
Be thorough and write down a checklist of documents required by your destination’s embassy or consulate. The visa will likely cost money which must be submitted with the application. Fees vary by country, some are nominal and some are quite expensive. Before some visas are granted, proof of certain vaccinations may be required. Read on below to determine if you will need vaccinations.
If your trip will be as an exchange student, or you are planning to find a job and work abroad, the best place to start looking for visa requirement details is your destination’s embassy website. The restrictions and process for these types of trips varies greatly from one place to the next.
Unless you’re traveling to an undeveloped country, chances are you don’t need any vaccinations. Exceptions include areas in the yellow fever endemic zone
It’s ideal to get this show on the road as soon as possible, since it can take weeks for some vaccinations given orally to be complete. And don’t forget, some countries won’t even let you have a travel visa without proof of vaccination.
One hiccup however could be if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Some of the vaccinations, yellow fever in particular, can be a little too potent for the little one. You should check with your primary care doctor before getting any vaccinations if you’re in this boat.
The CDC has vaccination requirements searchable by country and is an easy way to find this information. Scroll all the way to the bottom after clicking on your destination to see a chart, if it appears, to see recommended or required shots and medications. They also have a great database of travel medicine clinics you can use instead of a regular doctor’s office. A travel clinic that we’ve used which has locations all over the U.S. (which also happens to be woman-owned!) is Passport Health.
A good body of information about outbreaks of infectious diseases abroad kept by the World Health Organization (WHO).
So work hard on getting your ducks in a row as soon as you start your travel plans so you won’t get stuck in a lurch (or an airport security station) when it’s time to take off. A little paperwork now will ensure a smooth sailing while you’re out galavanting. ■