With travel disrupted for much of the past year, employees who are U.S. nationals may not have needed to renew their passports. But now that travel is beginning to pick up again, they should be aware of passport processing times and plan well in advance of travel.
Many U.S. passport services were suspended last year due to COVID-19. Passport agencies stopped taking emergency appointments or offering expedited processing, resulting in a wait of several months to obtain a passport. In 2020, 11.7 million U.S. passports were issued, a sharp decline from 20.7 million issued in 2019. Although U.S. passport services have gradually reopened for mail-in service and expedited processing is once again available via mail-in service only, no in-person appointments are available. In addition, emergency appointments are extremely limited and reserved for life-or-death situations, such as needing to travel within 72 hours for a life-saving medical treatment.
Because U.S. passports agencies and consulates overseas are coping with severe backlogs and remain understaffed, applicants should continue to plan for extended delays. As of Oct. 1, 2020, the last time the government provided the figures, 923,000 passport applications remained pending. At this time, routine processing for a passport is taking 10-12 weeks and expedited processing is taking at least 4-6 weeks.
What to expect this year? With COVID-19 lingering into 2021, U.S. passport applicants should anticipate current processing times to remain the same. That said, should we experience new surges or see new variants of COVID-19 continue to emerge, applicants should be prepared for additional actions by the Department of State, which may suspend expedited processing or result in new processing delays.
U.S. nationals should take steps now to prepare for upcoming travel, even if they are not planning to travel for several months. If their passport is set to expire this year, they should renew immediately and not wait for a return to “normal,” as the pandemic remains fluid and continues to threaten normal processing times. Travelers should also check their passport’s expiration date and make sure that it will remain valid beyond their travel. Most countries require an inbound traveler’s passport is valid for at least three months beyond the travel dates; and other countries require six months. Additionally, some airlines do not allow passengers to board if their passport does not meet the validity requirements. Travelers should confirm the individual requirements of the destination country as well as the rules of their airline regarding passport validity.
U.S. citizens residing abroad who plan to travel this year should consider their options as soon as possible. The U.S. Embassy or consulates in their country of residence may be closed or short-staffed; however, U.S. citizens may be able to book an appointment if they are in need of urgent passport support. Often this will require that the U.S. citizen personally reach out to the U.S. Embassy or consulate; requirements and appointment availability may vary by location.
Finally, as the pandemic continues to impact services in unpredictable ways, U.S. nationals and their employers should remain flexible and remember that the availability of U.S. passport services could change with little or no notice.
Jonathan Nagel is a Senior Associate in the Boston, Mass., office of Berry Appleman & Leiden LLP.