Start the Passport Process Early {Travel with Kids}

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Ready to travel with your kids to another country? You all need passports and you need to start that process with plenty of time. Trust me.

Start the Passport Process Early - Ready to travel with your kids to another country? You all need passports and you need to start that process with plenty of time.

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Folks warned me. They said make sure you submit your passport application with plenty of time.

I listened. I really did. But since it was going to cost over $1000 to procure said passports for our family of eight, I didn’t jump on it right away. I wanted to be sure that the trip would, indeed, happen, before forking over that money.

Ha! What a saga it has been. It all worked out, but still. I have more gray hair than I did before I started the process. I also have more respect for a government entity, namely the passport office.

One bright sunny day, over four months before our departure date, I stepped into the post office to make an appointment. It doesn’t work that way, says the sign on the wall. Call this number and make an appointment.


Oh great, thinks I. I will get an automated message and be lost forever. I dialed the number on my way to the car and left my detailed message. Before I pulled into my driveway I got a call back! From a real live person! I was shocked and amazed.

Sitting in the car in front of my house, I took notes on the back of an envelope of all the things we needed to bring and do. For eight people it would be a lot. Rather than me tell you, read the most up to date information on the US Department of State website.

We got an appointment for about a month later.


The night before our appointment — because I was a night-before-the-test crammer — I started filling out our forms. I was done with three when I read the part about using black ink only. Yes, I was using blue. I printed more forms and started filling them out.

Yes, you can fill in the pdf online and print it out, but you also have to sign some waiver about hackers, so I decided the old fashioned pen and paper way was safer. My hand is not so sure.

Start the Passport Process Early - Ready to travel with your kids to another country? You all need passports and you need to start that process with plenty of time.


We decided to take our photos at the post office since they are trained in what gets rejected etc. Picture all eight of us traipsing into a tiny, old school post office. (It was built in the 60s and it is tiny.) Our appointment was late, so while the kids and FishPapa explored, I waited by the desk.

I also had the opportunity to instruct three people on the ways of getting a passport as they, too, thought they’d walk in and apply. Um, no. Make that appointment. Early.


The kids did great standing for pictures, and the clerk who helped us was super nice. It seemed to go off like clockwork.

I was stunned when the mailman arrived at the door two weeks later, saying, “Your passports are here!” Of course, he only had four. But, they came so quickly, I didn’t worry.

A couple weeks later I remembered that you could check your status online, so I logged onto the passport website and saw that three of the kids were due to ship that week. A day after their passports arrived, our eighth member received a letter from the State Department: his photo had been rejected because there was a glare on his glasses too close to his eyes.


FishBoy12 and I went to Fed Ex Office that weekend to take a replacement photo. Two different clerks at Fed Ex assured me that his photo would pass. I came home and reread the instructions, just to be on the safe side. I got out my ruler to verify that the picture met the regulations.

It didn’t. His face was too big in the frame.

Start the Passport Process Early - Ready to travel with your kids to another country? You all need passports and you need to start that process with plenty of time.


I took several more shots myself of my son in front of the only smooth white door we own. I printed them myself, holding my breath that they would work.

On Monday, I expressed all three photos to the passport office, hoping one would pass.


I spent the next four weeks checking the website often to see if it was ready to ship. I never got that notice.


I ended up emailing and calling the number on the website. I was stunned to talk to a real person right away. She said she’d pass on my info to the office handling our application. I got a call back that day. I ended up calling every week for three weeks until they hunted it down and expressed it to our house. Though I had to be diligent on my end to keep calling, I was pleased to get to talk to the same real  person each time, and she always did what she said she would.

Whew. Crisis abated.

(As it turns out, the FedEx photo was rejected and they ended up using one of the ones that I took myself. Go figure. Did I mention that I want my money back — and the hair that turned gray?)

Yes, in the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (affiliate link), Walter gets his passport and boards a plane all in one day. That’s not a Hollywood fabrication. There are some cities where you can do this. You can also pay for faster service. These both cost more money.

If you need to go the budget route, allow for plenty of time, PLENTY of time, for your application to be submitted, processed, and corrected, if need be.

Update 8/2019: Since our initial passport application process in 2014, we have acquired new passports for the kids. Children’s passports expire after five years, so you need to reapply.

We decided to save some money and take the photos ourselves. 

The process was very much the same this time around, however, the photo requirements have changed. There’s a new NO SMILE rule. πŸ™

The State Department website is a little vague about this. My husband spent hours getting the right shot, griping at the kids, “Don’t smile. Stop smiling,” while he took their pictures. All to follow the rules.

Who tells their children NOT to smile in photographs? It’s completely un-parental!

At the Post office, they said that children under 16 could smile. But we only know this based on testimony from the postal worker who accepted our applications. You already know why I would take this with a grain of salt.

My kids’ passport photos for the next five years may look like they’re angry prison convicts’ mug shots, but at least the State Department didn’t reject them!


Got any good passport stories to tell?

Read Great Travel Books - Planning a trip? Be sure to check out some great travel guides before you go -- and make sure the kids get a chance to read along with you. Travel with Kids

This is part of the Travel with Kids series. Every day in October, I’m posting tips, tricks, and tutorials for making all your travels fun, frugal, and family-friendly.

Be sure to read through the archives in case you missed a post.

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  1. Well my story isn’t exactly a passport story… when I was 17 (quite few years ago) I went to visit missionary friends in Australia for month. This was before you bought tickets on the internet. We had to use a travel agent. She helped us through the whole process of tickets and passport and everything seemed great. I had my paper tickets, my boarding passes, my traveler’s checks etc. I had a grand send off with friends and family. My mom took to the airport. When I handed all my paperwork to the airline employee at the boarding gate, he looked over my passport asked where my visa was. The travel agent had forgotten to tell us Australia required visas to enter. My tickets that I had worked and saved for a year couldn’t be changed and I had to go home in defeat. We scrambled calling and overnighting things to American and Australian embassies. I think my parents bought me new tickets. I never asked πŸ™ maybe they got them to change the dates. I flew across the world a week later and had a wonderful trip!

  2. I have to say the renewal process is a WHOLE lot easier and Costco does wonderful quick (and the cheapest I found) photos. My husband and I planned an anniversary trip to Punta Cana in August and I was like perfect our passports expire in October, which apparently is not good enough. They need to be valid six months after travel dates. So I did the scamble and paid the expedite fee and 2 weeks later I had our renewals!

  3. I’m so excited for you! Our family hasn’t taken an international trip but I’m hoping that we might do something for our 25th anniversary(all the kids will be grown but I’m hopeful that they might humor their ol’ mom.) The saga of the passport is interesting-my oldest wears glasses -so the glare would definitely be something for us to keep in mind.

  4. Thanks so much for this info. I have been putting this off, and we haven’t done trips…even to Canada, so close, because of the cost! With many kids, it really is expensive! I had no idea it took so long though, and I have let mine expire- erg! Thanks for the heads up!

  5. My family planned a big trip to London several years ago that was going to be everyone’s first experience overseas (aside from my dad, who was born in Europe but hadn’t been back since he was a toddler). We were all adults by then and when the trip fell into place fairly last-minute, we were ecstatic. With five adults ready to have a good time on a family vacation, what could go wrong? Well, some of us had passports, some didn’t. My brother’s application was delayed due to problems with his signature, of all things. He always used to print his name on receipts, checks, etc., but apparently you have to sign in cursive on the passport application. Who knew? None of us, that’s for sure! We had already bought our plane tickets, so we held our breath. We had a last-minute trip to the passport office in Chicago planned if need be. He submitted a new application with a cursive signature and his passport arrived, if memory serves, about a week before our trip. WHEW. We had more fun in the airport when they decided his hyphenated last name on his passport didn’t match his plane ticket…but that’s another story and it also has a happy ending. (None of the rest of us have hyphenated last names, so that took us by surprise. Anyone else ever had trouble with hyphenated names on official documents?)

    Moral of the story: read the fine print, allow a lot of extra time for passports (and for boarding your flights!), and send up some extra prayers during the stressful moments. Oh, and have fun!! Our Europe trip was amazing!

    1. P.S. I applied for my passport during the big passport crunch in the summer of 2007 when the US had just switched over to requiring passports for passage into Canada and Mexico. I had been told to expect two weeks of processing time, but mine took six or eight weeks. I was applying for an overseas college program that summer and they required that you submit your passport number with the application to prove that you qualified for overseas study. I was so worried I would miss the application deadline because my passport wouldn’t arrive on time. Luckily, it did. I was accepted to the program and spent a semester in Egypt the following year. A fantastic experience. But seriously, I’ve learned my lesson. Don’t take chances with passports. πŸ™‚

      1. I stressed out over getting my passport in time for a college program too! It was one of the most stressful periods of my life — I got eye twitches! Of course, it was stress for no reason b/c when I talked to the program, they were flexible on that requirement. They just needed the process started. But, I had to smile when my passport came the day before the application was due.

  6. My 17 year old is leaving at the end of the month to study ballet in Moscow, Russia. She should be there by now…but there was a passport processing delay which delayed getting the correct information to the Academy, which delays us applying for a visa. We applied for an expedited passport and about the time the passport should have arrived in our mailbox, we received a letter stating that her photo was pixelated and that we needed to submit a new one. I took the copy of the photo I had back to CVS where we had the original taken. They took new photos at no charge and I held my breath as I shipped the photo overnight ($42!) A WEEK later, we received our “expedited” passport…

  7. I totally feel your pain! A couple of years ago we were taking our kids on a cruise leaving out of Puerto Rico. Since we were visiting foreign ports of calls, I’ve always taken passports when we cruise. All four of our passports had expired but since they were renewals I wasn’t overly concerned. Like you I was a night before the test studier so I waited until the last minute to send in the renewal forms. Our rejection letter came on Saturday, we were leaving on Thursday. Walgreens had allowed my daughter to wear a teeny, tiny headband which was against the rules. I hadn’t even noticed.

    I didn’t just add gray hairs, I think I took a couple of years off my life. With it being the weekend I couldn’t get ahold of anyone until Monday. I was able to get an emergency appointment in Chicago that
    Wednesday but wasn’t guaranteed a passport.

    Long story short, Royal Caribbean (best cruise line ever!) told me when I called them in a complete panic that since we had bought insurance we would qualify for a cruise credit if we were unable to take our cruise. Fortunately for us it was a closed loop cruise leaving and returning from the same US port so all that was required was a birth certificate for our daughter.

    We had a fabulous time but I definitely learned that procrastinating on our passports was NOT a good idea!

    Glad it all worked out for you πŸ™‚