How to get a new passport (and save some money)


My passport was due to expire and with the new RFID e-passports on the way, I wanted to make sure I got an old-fashioned paper passport before they started issuing the first generation of RFID e-passports. If you're applying for the first time or if you've lost your passport, you've got to go in person. If you just want to renew, you can do all of it over the mail.

I was at the post office yesterday, and right next to the sign above the counter listing their prices for express mail and priority mail and the rest of the postage rates, I noticed their prices for Passports: $97, and an additional $60 for expedited service. Seeing as how I remember thinking it wasn't all that expensive to get it renewed, I took a closer look at their fees. The post office apparently tacks on an additional $30 for the privilege of standing in line to hand in your passport application, as that $30 is called the "acceptance fee". Inside the post office, you can get your picture taken for your passport too -- the fee for that is $15 (in addition to all other fees of course).

For as long as I can remember, it was my father who took our passport photos. He'd pull out his old Minolta, and tell us to stand in front of the blank wall next to the stairway and he'd take a couple pictures of each of us. Sometimes I got to shoot my dad, but most of the time, it was Mom taking his picture. Then he'd bring it to the store to get it developed and ask for reprints of certain exposures from the negative. He'd get out the paper cutter to size them exactly right. I always thought that was the way you were supposed to get passport photos done, and I'm positive that in those days, the cost of doing all that was far less than what it would have cost professionally.

Now, as far as those places that take professional passport photos go, a fee of $15 is not too bad, and it's definitely cheaper than buying a bunch of photography equipment, but if you've got a family or if you're shooting more than just yourself, then the savings in doing the photography yourself start racking up pretty quickly -- my Dad was saving $45 in photography fees every time us kids needed to renew our passports (under 16, you need to renew every 5 years), and $30 every ten years for himself and Mom. Add in the acceptance fee, and that's another $90 every 5 years, and an additional $60 every ten years, so if we look at the past 20 years, my Dad, by shooting the pictures himself and mailing in our renewals, saved the family around $720 (using current rates), which paid for his camera (which he used for other things too) many, many times over.

In the last ten years, digital photography has become consumer-level technology, and if you have a digital camera that takes hi-res pictures (5+ megapixels) and a good quality photo printer (300dpi), you can save that $15 (and have a picture you know you'll be happy with). If you can buy your own padded envelope and can stick stamps on it, you can save yourself another $20 to $25 (depending on how you mail in your passport application)

More instructions in the extended.

If you're not eligible for a renewal by mail, then you should probably take a look at the U.S. Department of State to find out exactly what to do.

If you're eligible, fill out the Application for a Passport by Mail. You can also get these forms at your local post office if you don't want to print out a PDF. (I like the PDFs just because I can fill them out via keyboard, print them out, and then sign or initial whatever I need to).

The hardest part of getting passport pictures taken used to be that you needed two photos that were exactly the same -- they used to have specialized cameras for this purpose, but these days you can get away with taking a picture on any old camera and getting double prints, or for the more digitally minded, it's very easy to print an extra copy of an image taken by a digital camera.

To make a passport-compliant photo, there are a number of requirements it must pass:

  • Full Face, front view with eyes open.
  • Head needs to measure 1 inch to 1-3/8 inches.
  • Head needs to be complete from top of hair to bottom of chin.
  • Need to be wearing street clothes. No dark glasses or sunglasses.
  • Head needs to be centered in the frame
  • Eye height needs to be between 1-1/8 inches to 1-3/8 inches from bottom of photo
  • Needs to be photographed against a plain white or off-white background.
  • Lighting needs to create no shadows on background or on the face.
  • There can't be discernible pixels. Don't bother trying to scale up photos from your camera phone, the resolution probably isn't good enough.
  • Face should be in focus.
  • No visible dot pattern. (Make sure your photo printer is using the highest quality setting)
It seems like a long list of requirements, but it really isn't too bad. The lighting is the trickiest part, and their advice is to use three lamps: one behind to wipe out shadows, two lights diffused on the sides to kill shadows across the face.

Print them out or get them developed, cut them into 2x2 squares, throw them into the padded envelope along with your application and old passport, take it to be mailed, and you're done (and with any luck, you've managed to save yourself some money).

Disclaimer: As always, check and read over the U.S. Department of State website for all the details -- some things may have changed from when this article was written.

Leave a comment

Recent Entries

H1N1 Outbreak At PAX '09
Those of use on the convention circuit know that a lot of fanboys plus convention center equals an epidemiologist's nightmare;…
Scream Sorbet
I don't tend to like sorbet (or sherbet, the fizzier dairy-added version); while flavorful, it always seemed to me that…
Golden Age Comics are the New Benjamins
Recently, a meth ring was broken up, and the investigators discovered over $500,000 worth of comics in plastic cases. It…