There’s no getting around it – whatever your international travel plans, you’ll need to get a passport and deal with customs. Luckily for you, American passports can give you a lot of bang for your buck – with visa opportunities in a whopping 172 countries—and there are also some handy shortcuts for low-risk travelers.
If you don’t already have a passport, confirm your eligibility to apply at the State Department’s official government website and fill out the provided application on Form DS-11. First-time applicants are required to deliver the application in person at an authorized passport agency. This will typically be a post office, clerk of court, public library, or other government office and the State Department has a handy online tool to help you find the facility most convenient to your location.
In addition to your application, you will need to bring proof of citizenship and a photo ID.
Be prepared to wait in line – you are, after all, relying on federal bureaucracy – but you can save time visiting at a slower time of day or driving to a smaller or less central office.
You can pay the application fee of $135 onsite and will also need to provide a photograph to the State Department’s specifications, or have one taken.
The laundry list of passport photo requirements runs the gamut from the basics – a 2 x 2 inch color image printed on matte or glossy photo quality paper – to more detailed restrictions – like image background, clothing requirements, and the amount of space within the photo taken up by your face. You can take care of this at the passport agency or another in-person service. Coming soon from Easy Sentri is a new online service that will allow you to skip the lines by taking your own passport photo at home, using your computer’s webcam.
After four to six weeks, you’ll have your new passport in hand.
Want to go the extra mile and save yourself even more time?
The Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol run a series of Trusted Traveler programs, granting low-risk travelers a quicker path back into the United States.
There is also a PreCheck program managed by the TSA, which allows low-risk travelers to get through airport security checks more quickly. Imagine not having to take off your shoes and belt in airport security, or being able to keep your laptop safely packed in your bag.
If you’re truly a frequent flier, though, your best value will come with the Global Entry program, which encompasses all the benefits of SENTRI, NEXUS, and TSA PreCheck in addition to granting you expedited Customs processing at 46 American airports.
You can fill out an initial Global Entry application online and pay a non-refundable application fee to get the ball rolling. Be prepared to share your passport number and the past five years of your residences, employers, countries you’ve visited, and any criminal offenses.
If and when your application is approved, you will need to schedule a face-to-face interview with a Customs and Border Patrol officer within three weeks. Bring your proof of citizenship, driver’s license, and proof of employment and residence. They’ll ask you some basic questions about your travel habits, scan your fingerprints, and take a photo.
If you plan on driving across the U.S.-Mexico border, you may also need to provide your vehicle registration and submit to a quick search of your car.
It may seem intimidating, but no other personal information will be asked of you and your face time with the officer will only total about five minutes.
You’ll receive a Trusted Traveler card in the mail about a week after your interview, which you can activate at the application website. Keep in mind that you will need to enter the Known Traveler Number (KTN) on your card when you purchase your plane tickets to gain access to TSA PreCheck lines.
This small investment of upfront time and costs will save you a tremendous amount of hassle on your travels. Signing up for Global Entry buys your time back.