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State Department struggles with 500k passport applications a week

5 min read
State Department struggles with 500k passport applications a week

Trying to get a passport so you can finally take that overseas trip you’ve sought for so long? Bad news, friend – it looks like 2023 might not be your year.

As the State Department battles to deal with the 500,000 passport applications it receives weekly, would-be travelers are having to wait months for their replacements, or even cancel trips costing them thousands of dollars.

A dramatic rebound in post-COVID-era travel – coupled with too few government workers to handle passport applications – means paperwork backups are reportedly stretching for metaphorical miles.

The department is mainly having to prioritize what it calls urgent cases, such as applicants traveling for reasons of “life or death”.

US officials have a fairly simple, predictable answer for the whole problem: It’s the pandemic’s fault.

“With COVID, the bottom basically dropped out of the system,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a House subcommittee back in March.

No one was traveling, so the government canned contractors and shifted the staff that usually handles passports, Blinken said. It also halted a proposed online renewal system to allegedly “fine-tune” it.

A man holding a passport.
The passport backlog has led to worried travelers being marooned at home because their travel documents aren’t arriving in time.
Getty Images

Now, the department is hiring agents as quickly as it can, according to the secretary. But the damage is already done – and it’s come at the worst possible time.

With the passport agency dealing with record-breaking numbers of applications, it is on track to break last year’s milestone of 22 million passports issued. That in itself was the most since at least 1974, according available federal data.

But statistics offer little consolation to marooned travelers who anxiously watch as the calendar pages drop ahead of a big trip.

Ginger Collier, who lives near Dallas, applied for four passports in early March, figuring they’d arrive well before her family vacation in late June.

But the waiting time gradually lengthened from eight weeks, to 11 weeks, to 13 weeks, Collier said. And two weeks before her departure, she was starting to freak out.

“I can’t sleep,” she said, adding that she’d lose $4,000 if the family didn’t get the documents in time.

She got lucky – after an early-morning voyage to the Dallas passport office, she had them in-hand with just four days to spare.

Others weren’t so lucky.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer's patch is seen as they unveil a new mobile app for international travelers arriving at Miami International Airport on March 4, 2015 in Miami, Florida.
Government officials have blamed the COVID epidemic and staffing problems for the massive wait times.
Getty Images

Miranda Richter had to cancel a trip to Croatia in June because she couldn’t get her passport renewed – even though she’d applied in early February.

After months of back-and-forth, she went to a federal building in Houston hoping to snag a morning appointment at the passport office. But there were already 100 people in line.

“The security guard asked when is my appointment, and I burst out in tears,” she said. “It didn’t work.”

She eventually called off the trip – and lost more than $1,000 in the process.

It’s not necessarily surprising that the system is swamped.

The number of Americans holding a valid US passport has grown about 10% faster than the population during the last 30 years, according to Jay Zagorsky, an economist at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.

Zagorsky – who suffered passport delays himself earlier this year – said that in 1989, the number of passports per American was about three for every 100 people.

By last year, that number had skyrocketed to 46 per every 100, he said.

“As a society gets richer, the people in that society say, ‘I want to visit the rest of the world,’” Zagorsky said.

Frazzled travelers have demanded help from their elected representatives, who have said at hearings this year that they’re getting more complaints from people angry about passport delays than any other issue.

Several US senators have urged Blinken to take action, and Sen. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) announced last week that he was introducing a bill that would address the backlog by establishing a 12-week processing time requirement, among other things.

Customs agents at an airport
US Senators have urged the Secretary of State to act, and one Oklahoma senator has even proposed legislation to require a 12-week processing time.
Getty Images

But for now, the problems continue.

Teresa Engelman of Oklahoma City missed her trip to Israel because her passport didn’t arrive until the day after she was supposed to leave in June – even though she first applied way back in October 2022, according to Oklahoma News 4.

She paid the extra fees through Rush My Passport, an expediting service available to Americans looking to travel internationally. But it didn’t matter.

“I was kind of disappointed… I missed it by one day,” she told the news station.

Lankford helped her secure her documents ahead of her newly-scheduled November trip, she said.

But the wild slowdowns will have consequences – and might even lead to changes in how people book trips.

“Demand is extremely high and there could be long wait times on at our call center,” Andres Rodriguez, Lead Community Relations Officer for Passport Services at the Department of State, told News 4.

“In some cases, we recommend that you actually take care of or figure out your passport situation before you purchase international airline tickets to avoid missed trips and last minute stress,” he added.

Those who want to take their chances might think twice so they can avoid the crucible others have endured.

“I started crying and crying because I said, you know, it’s very hard to lose all that money,” said Rosalba Malagon, who told NBC 6 South Florida that she nearly had to cancel a retirement trip to Italy because her passport renewal was nowhere in sight.

Malagon got lucky – after the 73-year-old retiree contacted the news station, the station spoke to the State Department and got her the documents.

But the experience was eye-opening.

“When you call in, nobody answers,” Malagon said about calling the passport office. “And nobody cares.”

With Post wires

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