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Officials urge citizens to do U.S. passport paperwork early

Remember the Great Passport Disaster of 2007?

If you were one of the 18 million U.S. citizens trying to get a passport before the new Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative went into effect, you probably do. The initiative meant that you could no longer use any “official ID” to return to the United States from anywhere in the eponymous hemisphere, and that meant all the popular destinations — from Montreal to the Caribbean and Mexico.

The initiative was a result of a 2004 act of Congress strengthening anti-terrorism measures after Sept. 11, 2001. Despite several years to prepare for the first phase — affecting air travel — to go into effect Jan. 23, 2007, the tsunami of passport applications soon created a mess in every way.

Americans were confused, processors were buried in paperwork, deadlines were moved and vacations and travel plans were parked in limbo. And because until then Americans were one of the most passport-free populations in the world, the number of people having to hurry up to comply was unwieldy: Three-fourths of the population didn’t have one. But on Jan. 23, 2007, we had to have a passport to fly to places that were foreign but only a short hop and no hassle away.

For once I wasn’t among the last-minute, nail-biting, I’ll-pay-any-price-to-get-it-tomorrow hordes. I had my passport, and I actually knew where it was. But I watched the chaos unfold and reported in as the system descended into, well, I would have said Keystone Kops chaos, but for some people it really wasn’t funny.

Like the nervous couple I had met at the Bergen County Clerk’s Office. They weren’t nervous about their imminent wedding date, but about their honeymoon. His passport was still MIA, though it had been 3-1/2 months since he applied and without it there would be no honeymoon in Aruba. Or the woman who’d made plans months and months in advance to return to her family home in the Philippines and was fearing she would have to cancel the trip, disappoint her family and lose the money she’d laid out for traveling.

It might seem like only yesterday when you bring up those memories. But it wasn’t. It will soon be the 10th anniversary of the Great Passport Disaster.

All those hard-earned, brand-spanking-new passports of 2006 and 2007? Soon to be sort of worthless if you try to travel internationally.

Because after 10 years, passports expire. Which means a new mass movement to renew.

Will it be Passport Disaster, the Sequel?

We hope not, but the State Department seems to think it may not be pretty.

Officials say their Passport Office has been experiencing increased demand for renewals the past year or two. And applications for passports have generally surged since 2007, with increases of several million every year. The agency issued 14 million passports in 2014, the last date for which totals are available, and the increased demand is expected to continue through 2018.

As a pre-emptive measure in September, the State Department launched the Apply Early campaign, turning our thoughts to that little blue document.

The State Department anticipates the crunch will begin in 2016 and says processing will take longer with the start of the new year. The current wait for a passport is four to six weeks, but it could jump to as many as 10 weeks or more.

Renewals will be just one factor in the expected crush.

Another is the fact that traveler demographics are changing: Both baby boomers and millennials are dedicated travelers — internationally as well as domestically. Passports are essential parts of their lives. In fact, more Americans have passports now than ever before, according to the Bureau of Consular Affairs: 38 percent compared with 27 percent in 2007.

Also contributing to the expected crunch are the improving economy, cheaper airfares and good international exchange rates for the American dollar. Since the 2007 debacle more than 550 passport service employees have been added, and 10 new passport agencies have been opened. There are plans to hire more workers and extend call-center hours as well.

Prices and fees have also been raised: Your first passport is $135 (was $100); renewal is $110 (was $75). Adding visa and other pages is $82 (it was free). There’s even a new fee if you’d like to formally renounce your U.S. citizenship: Once free, it’s now $450.

I guess, therefore, that there are some extra bucks to pad out the operation. Still, the fact that passport authorities are cringing publicly must mean something.

So, if you’re one of those organized people who believes forewarned is forearmed, or if you just still remember the disaster of ’07 a little too well, you might want to act on that “apply early” advice.

The Apply Early campaign gets passports back on the public radar at a good time, because turnaround time is quickest from September to December.

That’s one hint from the State Department’s Pro Tips list (travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/passports/information/apply-early.html). Here are some of my other favorite points to remember about the passport process:

>> First, because you’re thinking about passports, expiration dates are but one no-go scenario. Many countries require you have at least six months left on your passport before they’ll let you in. Then there are those countries that require that you have two blank pages — or two visa pages (even two facing visa pages) — for entry.

>> Ten years is not when your passport turns into a pumpkin. Well, it may be about as useful after 10 years, but you can renew your passport before 10 years is up. Conversely, you have 15 years from the date of issue to renew without beginning the process all over again. If you were too attached to the thing to part with it, don’t worry: The old passport will be returned. Maybe in a different envelope. Or at a different time. But be assured, it will come.

>> A child’s passport (issued to anyone under 16) expires after five years.

>> Speaking of children: If you’re behind on child support, you may be unable to get a passport.

>> Especially if you’re a frequent traveler, request the large version of the U.S. passport by checking the box on your application for “52 pages.” The basic model comes with 28, and the 52-pager doesn’t cost a dime extra. But when you run out of those pages down the road, it’ll cost $82 to get more blank pages added later.

>> Reasons for delay? Along with massive amounts of OPP (other people’s paperwork), you can slow progress if you don’t do things the right way.

1. As mentioned, applicable fees are by check or money order only, made out to “U.S. Department of State.” Applicant’s full name and date of birth must be “typed or printed” on the front of the check.

2. You need to send only one passport photo. Along with your face being 2 inches high etc., the prescribed method is to staple your photo to the application. Use four staples vertically in the corners as close to the outer edges as possible. And of course … do not bend the photo.

3. Send it to the right address. For expedited service, send to:

National Passport Processing Center, Box 90955, Philadelphia, PA 19190-0955. And write “EXPEDITE” clearly on the outside of the mailing envelope (no, really, they specify the outside, not the inside).

For routine service, address your envelope to:

The National Passport Processing Center, Box 90155, Philadelphia, PA 19190-0155.

They “strongly recommended” you use an envelope large enough to fit the application without folding. “This will help to protect the contents of your mailing from the elements throughout the delivery process.”

It’s also strongly recommended that you use a form of delivery that can be tracked.

By Jill Schensul, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

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