Miller family passports. Photo by Anna Cohen Miller.

When I was growing up, I remember going to a student travel agency to get my passport. They had it all – short lines, helpful young students, photographers on hand, and all the paperwork you needed. Today, I’ve found that the process can still be simple, but it has changed a bit (although some travel agencies can still process your passport, just check the extra fees you may pay for their services). So, now that the summer months are upon us, what better time to get passports and be ready to travel.

Passport Documents

The necessary forms can be downloaded online or filled out online (if you have Adobe Acrobat) and then printed. You will need some basic information to fill out the forms for you and your family such as name and contact information, social security numbers, emergency contact, and expected dates of travel. Wait to sign the forms until you are at the passport office in front of an agent.

If you have children below the age of 18, you will need to bring original birth certificates, which can be ordered from Vital Statistics. While I didn’t love the idea of sending off the original birth certificate, we were informed that they would be sent back to us approximately 10 days after we received the passports. Both parents have to be present to sign the children’s documents. Also, we were asked for identification (we used our drivers license) to prove our citizenship.

Taking Passport Photos

passport photo guide

There are many options for taking passport photos. For instance, you can go to most pharmacies like Walgreens or CVS (approximately $11-13, but can be purchased for cheaper by a quick search for coupons online), a UPS store, or even have them taken at the passport office (approximately $16). Another option is to take them yourself. Some easy options include using your smart phone (you can download an app to lead you through the process) following the State Department’s photo toolkit. The basic prerequisites are to stand in front of a white background (although the slightly off-white door we took pictures in front of worked just fine) and to have your face centered within a 2” x 2” square.

(Use the photo composition template here.)

The most difficult photo to take was of our infant. From what I researched, hands must not show in the photo (when holding/positioning the infant), the infant must look straight at the camera, and both ears must be visible. After trying numerous different ways of holding her, we found a solution by using a baby bouncer covered in a white blanket. With that she was automatically looking forward and angled towards us for a picture. I have also seen a tutorial on taking the photo looking straight down into a crib/floor, which could be another option.

Arriving at the Passport Office

We arrived to the San Antonio Passport Office with our printed-out pictures, forms, birth certificates, and IDs. We had to circle the parking lot a couple of times to find a spot to park as it turns out Monday afternoons are a busy time. First, we waited in line to have our documents checked for completeness and hand over our IDs (about 5 minutes total), then we waited to be called back to an agent (about 45 minutes). Although the inside waiting room is nicely air-conditioned, it’s fairly small and quiet, so not a great place for a toddler. Fortunately right outside the door is a shaded area with a ramp and steps that were a great place to talk, play, and walk around. (Just make sure you inform the person who checks you in that you will be outside, so they know where to find you when your name is called.) In the same complex as the passport office is the birth certificate office, which has bathrooms on site and a water fountain (which wasn’t working the day we were there).

Once we were called back to the agent, he studiously went through our documents and we sat and waited, answering the occasional question. There are two separate fees that were collected — one that goes to the US Department of State and one that goes to the City of San Antonio. The fees for passports for the State Department must be paid by check or money order, while the City allows credit cards or cash. (If you are renewing a passport, you can send in the forms yourself and eliminate the need to pay the $25 execution fee). With four people in our family, we had $100 to pay to the City, $110 for each adult passport book, and $80 for each child passport book. We were told that processing currently takes about six weeks and expedited passports (an addition $60 each) take about two to three weeks.

Overall, we found the experience a fairly straightforward process. While I could have chosen to renew my passport in the mail, by sending it directly to the Department of State, thereby saving $25, I felt more comfortable having a passport agent, in person, go through all the details of our forms and confirm everything was in order.

*Featured/top image: Obtaining a passport might be a long process, but the subsequent travels could be life changing. Photo by Anna CohenMiller. 

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A.S. CohenMiller has a doctoral degree in Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching from the University of Texas at San Antonio and writes about arts-based research, motherhood in academia, adult education,...