The wait for US passports is creating travel purgatory and snarling summer plans
WASHINGTON (AP) — Seeking a valid U.S. passport for that 2023 trip? Buckle up, wishful traveler, for a very different journey before you step anywhere near an airport.
A much-feared backup of U.S passport applications has smashed into a wall of government bureaucracy as worldwide travel rebounds toward record pre-pandemic levels — with too few humans to handle the load. The result, say aspiring travelers in the U.S. and around the world, is a maddening pre-travel purgatory defined, at best, by costly uncertainty.
With family dreams and big money on the line, passport seekers describe a slow-motion agony of waiting, worrying, holding the line, refreshing the screen, complaining to Congress, paying extra fees and following incorrect directions. Some applicants are buying additional plane tickets to snag in-process passports where they sit — in other cities — in time to make the flights they booked in the first place.
So grim is the outlook that U.S. officials aren’t even denying the problem or predicting when it will ease. They’re blaming the epic wait times on lingering pandemic -related staffing shortages and a pause of online processing this year. That’s left the passport agency flooded with a record-busting 500,000 applications a week. The deluge is on-track to top last year’s 22 million passports issued, the State Department says.
Stories from applicants and interviews by The Associated Press depict a system of crisis management, in which the agencies are prioritizing urgent cases such as applicants traveling for reasons of “life or death” and those whose travel is only a few days off. For everyone else, the options are few and expensive.
So, 2023 traveler, if you still need a valid U.S. passport, prepare for an unplanned excursion into the nightmare zone.
It was early March when Dallas-area florist Ginger Collier applied for four passports ahead of a family vacation at the end of June. The clerk, she said, estimated wait times at eight to 11 weeks. They’d have their passports a month before they needed them. “Plenty of time,” Collier recalled thinking.
Then the State Department upped the wait time for a regular passport to as much as 13 weeks. “We’ll still be okay,” she thought.
At T-minus two weeks to travel, this was her assessment: “I can’t sleep.” This after months of calling, holding, pressing refresh on a website, trying her member of Congress — and stressing as the departure date loomed. Failure to obtain 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 study-abroad semester.
“My nerves are shot, because I may not be able to get to him,” she said. She calls the toll-free number every day, holds for as much as 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 in plenty of time,” she said. “How about they just process my passports?”
BY LAURIE KELLMAN, REBECCA SANTANA AND DAVID KOENIG for AP