Behind the Scenes on Passport Day

Writing this blog entry while waiting for my flight back to California; I just so happen to have brought my passport with me on this trip!

when i had heard that the state department’s bureau of consular affairs was opening up their passport agencies to travel bloggers on passport day, i couldn’t refuse! a passport is more than a little book that you stuff in your pocket and get stamped: it’s your key to the world. to be honest, i wasn’t sure what was in store and certainly didn’t think it could fill up two hours (it did), but i had a great time and learned a lot more than i expected. (also, it was quite serendipitous since i had to drive down to the airport from where i stay for work and would pass by Philadelphia’s old city, where the agency is located, anyways. p.s. it’s in an amazing art deco building. if you’re visiting the liberty bell and other historical sites in downtown Philly, it’s worth dealing with the unnecessarily-surly security guards doing the x-ray/metal detection just to see the rotunda.)

(side note: i’m on my third passport; i scanned in my second one before i sent it off to be renewed.)

but first, a big thanks to Orlando Rivera, the director of the Philadelphia Passport Agency, for welcoming the two of us that took advantage of this opportunity. such a personable and affable guy — absolutely nothing like what i would have imagined a government bureaucrat (and i mean that in the most neutral of ways) to be like!

before i get into the whole story, here are the two main things i learned (aka the TL;DR):

  • register for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). i’d never heard about this program before, but it sounds like a great return for a short investment in time before your trip. it’s basically the 21st century version of “tell the government where you’re going in case anything happens (and they need to come rescue your ass)”. if, for example, you lose your passport overseas, you will have all your relevant information in this system that can be retrieved at an embassy for quicker identification and assistance, including your passport number. also, you can authorize disclosure of information to friends and family who may be wondering about your whereabouts or current status (it’s completely opt-in, so they won’t tell anyone anything by default). you can also receive travel warnings and other notices for countries you will be visiting. register now. i just did. (the key is to keep it up-to-date with your travel plans.) the point is, you never know when something might happen (*knock on wood*) like a death in the family or if you get arrested for something you didn’t know was illegal. the state department can help you out, and you can expedite the process if you are registered with STEP.
  • people routinely get denied a passport. i mean, not for no reason at all, but i didn’t know there were so many reasons for which you could get denied (*cue angelic halo ding*). sure, if you’re a wanted criminal, but for example, if you owe more than $2,500 in child support — no passport. they do facial recognition on your submitted picture, too, says Mr. Rivera, so be warned, all you wanted felons out there! (and yes, he has called the feds on felons who have appeared in his facilities.) in complicated cases, such as getting a passport for a child you adopted, there are many things that can trip you up. all the information you need is up on travel.state.gov, though, so make sure you fully read and abide by the rules and everything will go hunky-dory.
last year (2011), 12,613,153 passports were issued —statistics

ok, back to the beginning. passport day is an annual event where people can go to a passport agency on a set saturday without an appointment, perfect for families where both parents work and the children are in school (since you need both parents’ consents for a child’s passport). in some cities (this year, said Mr. Rivera, New York City as well as several in Texas), the lines were out the door, but in Philadelphia there was hardly a crowd (perhaps partially why they wanted to get the word out on social media? and yes, i’m glad to help.).

The two photos on the bottom show the round-the-corner lines typical of early 2007 when the first phase of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative was put into effect. During that year, that agency saw double its usual volume.

some things i learned about the passport application process:

  • if you apply in person at an agency (not a drop-off location like a post office), the person will give you a mini-interview to not only size you up, but also to offer any travel advice regarding warnings or alerts to your particular area. it may sound like they are being intrusive, but they are indeed trying to help.

    The counter. And yes, it says no pictures but I was with Mr. Rivera and he OK'd this picture.

  • applications are digitized and entered into their system, at which point a pretty thorough automatic vetting process is carried out (including law enforcement and department of health and human services checks [child support, etc]). once that is complete, each application is adjudicated by a real human being who will verify information and approve or reject based on what the background check turns up. if you do not get approved, you will receive a notification with steps to correct (if possible). you have 90 days to resubmit your information before your application is fully denied and closed and you have to reapply (and pay again). anything that involves another agency or part of the government will take up to a week or more to be reflected in the passport agency’s system, so don’t hound them — it’s out of their hands.
  • if all your documentation is present and you don’t have any problems during the vetting process, your passport gets printed, it goes through a verification step, your information is saved on the RFID chip, and gets mailed out to you (or is available for pickup). the internals of the printing machines are highly classified, but they’re pretty dull from the outside (they just look like big beige metal boxes). the books come ready-made; the printer simply prints the information on the data page that has your photo and personal information on it.
  • put your email address on the form. many people leave it off but if they need to contact you regarding your application, this will save a lot of time that would be wasted on snail mail going back and forth. a pilot project was carried out last year that allowed them to contact applicants via email; they have received authorization to continue doing so.
  • if you drop off your application at an acceptance facility (e.g., a post office), your application and funds get sent to a facility in Newark, Delaware* where payment and initial scanning, etc., are handled (this is a process contracted out to Citigroup). the applications are then securely sent (under lock and key) to the passport agency for the manual adjudication process. passports applied for via this process are not printed at the agency (as is the case with counter service) but at two bulk processing facilities, one in arkansas and one in arizona.

    * something i’ve learned listening to NPR out here in Philly is that Newark, Delaware is pronounced differently than Newark, New Jersey. the former is pronounced more like “new ark”  while the latter (as made famous by the airport) is “NOOwurk”.

Applications in process

one final note: travel.state.gov is your friend. not only can you get information on the forms you need and the process for applying for and renewing a passport, but there are pages on each country (definitely useful, i’ve read country reports in preparation for several trips), travel warnings and alerts as well as information on services the state department can provide you as an international traveler at home and abroad (e.g., come rescue your ass).

well, i hope this didn’t sound like too much of an advertisement, but i really did get the impression today that the passport agency is just one part of a larger entity (the bureau of consular affairs) that just wants to enable and ease international travel and take care of american citizens abroad. give them more work to do! get a passport and take advantage of the services they offer.

also, i tried my best to take accurate notes, but if there are any falsehoods, feel free to correct me in the comments!

p.s. random fact i learned: not everyone born on american soil is automatically granted american citizenship. if you are the child of a diplomat of a certain rank or higher (i think it’s related to diplomatic immunity?), your child will not be born an american citizen.

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2 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes on Passport Day

  1. Almost all children born in the US are American citizens by birth, except for diplomatic children. If a foreign military person is training in the US and his wife gives birth while she’s here, the child is a US citizen. Once the child turns 18, s/he can choose whether to renounce or affirm US citizenship. If someone doesn’t know they are a US citizen (their parents never told them that s/he was born here, for example), they can renounce when they discover that fact.

    On the subject of losing your passport, I had to send my US passport (including the Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK visa) into the Home Office when I applied for British citizenship. It was lost somewhere between them and me (I suspect it was nicked from the mailroom as a US passport with a UK visa in it is very valuable) and I had to go to the US Embassy in Belgravia to get a replacement. First, I was given the third degree by the clerk (who was British, judging from his accent). Then I had to wait a couple of hours while they produced a replacement passport for me. (This was in 2000) The passport was good only for a year, after which I had to return to get it endorsed for a further 9 years (this was in case the lost passport turned up). After that, until I renewed my passport in 2010, every time I went through Immigration I had to wait while the officer thumbed through my passport looking for the endorsements. It was a pain.

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