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The Definitive U.S. Passport Application Guide for First Timers

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Brian Graham
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Brian Graham

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After leveraging employee travel benefits from a previous corporate job, Brian set sail with his buddy around the world and has become a seasoned traveler who maximizes points and miles wherever possi...
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A U.S. passport is your ticket to travel around the world. But you may not be familiar with what passports are, how they work, or how to get one if you haven’t traveled internationally or traveled to Canada or Mexico before passports were required.

Getting a U.S. passport for the first time can be quite easy and only takes a couple of hours of work and a quick photo of yourself. But you must know what’s necessary to complete and where to submit your paperwork.

If you need a passport renewal or have a special case like a name change or a lost passport, read the U.S. passport renewal and special cases guide.

In this guide, you will learn how to get a passport for the first time.

Hot Tip:

Passport Eligibility Requirements

To be eligible for a U.S. passport, you must be either a U.S. citizen by birth or naturalization or be a qualifying U.S. national.

Depending on which category you fall under, you must provide different evidence of your eligibility.

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You’re a U.S. Citizen if One of the Following Apply:You’re a Qualifying National if One of the Following Apply:
You were born in the U.S.You were born in American Samoa
Your parent is a U.S. citizen*You were born in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Island
You’re a former alien who has been naturalized as a U.S. citizen 
You were born in Puerto Rico 
You were born in Guam 
You were born in the U.S. Virgin Islands 

*See details of the Child Citizenship Act

If you are born abroad to parents who are U.S. citizens, your parents must fill out the CRBA form (DS-2029) and submit it to the nearest U.S. embassy in order to secure your citizenship.

This process is extremely important to prevent issues in obtaining citizenship. It is best to simultaneously apply for a passport so there are no issues getting back into the U.S.

The U.S. Passport Application Process

Applying for a U.S. passport is not difficult. To apply for a U.S. passport, you’ll need to complete the following steps:

Step 1: Fill Out the Official Application

The official application for a U.S. passport is the U.S. Department of State form DS-11. It’s quite easy to fill out.

US Passport Application DS 11 2023
The top half of the Application for a U.S. Passport form DS-11. You must fill this in on paper or online and print it and bring it in to be processed. Image Credit: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

When completing the passport form, pay close attention to the different fields and do not make handwritten adjustments to the form after printing (with the exception of your signature).

You have a few options to select when applying for a passport document:

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Type of DocumentTravel UsageProsCons
28-Page Passport BookAll available countries*Standard-sized passportMay not be large enough for frequent travelers
52-Page Passport BookAll available countries*Extra pages to fit more visa stamps for frequent travelersLarger, more cumbersome size
Passport CardCanada, Mexico, the Caribbean, BermudaCheaper, size of a credit card, easy access to these specific countriesCannot be used to travel to the rest of the world

*Travel with a passport is restricted by visa requirements of the countries you are traveling to.

The passport book is a little more expensive, but there aren’t any restrictions. However, the card is very convenient when traveling to those select countries.

The passport book comes with either the standard 28 pages or the extended 52 pages. If you plan to travel a lot, get the 52-page passport, as the price is the same.

The 28-page passport is plenty for most people, given you’ll likely need to renew before filling it up. However, if you need more pages, the U.S. government will send you a new passport versus adding pages to your current one.

To get a copy of the required application form, you can print it from home or locally. You can also pick up the application where you will submit your application.

If you plan to pick up the application and submit it all in 1 trip, ensure you have completed all the other steps first.

Step 2: Proof of Citizenship or Naturalization

US Citizen Representation
You must wave your U.S. flags with a birth certificate, certification of naturalization, or some other proof that you can be considered a citizen or national. Image Credit: Gazlast via Shutterstock

While there are minimum passport requirements stated, sometimes they may ask you for more than 1 piece of information to prove your citizenship.

It’s better to be prepared, so try to bring as much information as possible!

Here is where knowing your eligibility status is important. Different evidence is required for those (1) born in the U.S. (citizens), (2) born outside the U.S. (citizens), (3) born outside the U.S. (naturalized), and (4) born outside the U.S. (adopted).

For U.S. citizens born in the U.S. or U.S. nationals, you simply need to submit a certified birth certificate.

Make sure it is not a copy of your birth certificate. If your certificate was not filed for over a year after your birth, or you do not have one, you must also submit a combination of the following:

  • A hospital birth record
  • An early baptismal or circumcision certificate
  • Early census, school, medical, or family bible records
  • Insurance files or published birth announcements (such as a newspaper article)
  • Notarized affidavits or DS-10 (birth affidavit) of older blood relatives having knowledge of your birth in addition to some of the above

All the evidence must be official and signed with all the appropriate information about you.

For U.S. citizens born outside the U.S., you will need to submit the following:

  • Your foreign birth certificate listing your parent(s)
  • Your parent(s)’ evidence of U.S. citizenship
  • Your parents’ marriage certificate, if applicable
  • A statement from your U.S. citizen parent(s) detailing all periods and places of their residence or physical presence in the U.S. and abroad (even before your birth)

For those born outside the U.S. and naturalized, submit your Certificate of Naturalization or Certificate of Citizenship.

For those born outside the U.S. and who claim citizenship through the naturalization of their parents, you must submit a few things:

  • Your foreign birth certificate listing your parent(s)
  • Your parent(s)’ naturalization certificate
  • Evidence of your permanent residence status. Examples include:
    • Permanent Resident Card/Green Card
    • Foreign passport with the original I-551 visa entry stamp
  • Your parents’ marriage certificate (if your parents were married when you legally entered the U.S. and before your 18th birthday)
  • Documentation of legal custody (if your parents were not married when you legally entered the U.S.)
  • Evidence of your legitimation (if your parents were not married at the time of your birth). Examples include:
    • Your parents’ marriage certificate dated after your birth
    • Certified court order of legitimation

For those born outside the U.S. and adopted while under the age of 16, you will need to provide the following document:

  • Evidence of your permanent residence status
  • Evidence of your full and final adoption
  • Evidence that you were in the legal and physical custody of your U.S. citizen parent(s)
  • Evidence you have resided in the U.S.

For more information, refer to the Child Citizenship Act of 2000.

While this may seem like a lot, make sure to bring any other official documentation that you feel might be relevant, whether you are a U.S. citizen born in the U.S. or abroad.

The U.S. Department of State website lists the accepted secondary evidence. Note: Social Security cards are not considered evidence.

Step 3: Submit Identification

The proof of identification is a bit easier and less daunting than the proof of citizenship. The proof of identity must have a good photo of you with your signature.

It has to be a permanent form of identification (not a temporary card) and an official U.S. government-issued form of identification. Examples include:

  • Permanent driver’s license
  • Military identification
  • Expired passport book/card
  • Certificate of naturalization or citizenship

Step 4: Submit Photocopied Evidence

While you will need to have all official documentation when you submit your application, you will also need photocopies of each document so there is a copy of your documentation submitted with your application.

Before you submit your application, photocopy all primary and secondary evidence you will bring in. Then you can provide whatever they ask for. Make copies of each piece of evidence separately.

The photocopies must be of the front and back of each piece of evidence, on 8.5 x 11-inch white paper, printed in black and white, and on 1 side of the paper.

Finally, you must not reduce the size of any images copied, but you can enlarge them if you choose.

Step 5: Provide a Picture: Passport Photo Requirements

Child taking a Photo
While this photo is cute, it wouldn’t be eligible for the passport photo. You can’t see his face! Image Credit: YuryImaging via Shutterstock

Perhaps the one thing that is most overlooked is the passport photo. While some facilities provide photo-taking services, it is easiest to do this ahead of time.

Per application requirements, you only need to provide 1 photo. The photo has to be a high-quality color photo of you, taken within the last 6 months, taken in front of a white or off-white background, and be 2 x 2 inches in size.

You will need to wear regular street clothes and not wear any headdress or glasses unless worn for religious reasons and documented as such.

Since more passport photo requirements exist, it is easiest to simply get the photo taken at a facility that provides a passport photo service. Typical places to take these include big pharmacies, department stores, government offices, and more. If you’d prefer to do it yourself, follow these guidelines for taking your passport photo at home.

The photos cost around $6 to $20 and are in addition to your passport application fee. Bring the photos to the application facility, but they don’t have to be attached to the application.

Step 6: Pay the Passport Application Fee

The U.S. passport fees are stated on the U.S. Department of State website.

Please note that these fees are in addition to the cost of the photos and any additional fees in getting the proper evidence together.

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Applying For:Application FeeExecution Fee
Passport Book$130$35
Passport Card$30$35
Passport Book + Card$160$35
Adult Passport Card (if you already possess a Book)$30No charge

Depending on where you submit your application, you can pay the passport fee with cash, check, or credit card. You can even use money orders.

Make checks or money orders payable to the “U.S. Department of State” and ensure you have the exact amount if you want to pay with cash.

If you want to expedite your passport, you can do so for an additional $60 fee. An overnight delivery service can be obtained for $19.53, which will overnight your passport from the date it is approved.

Hot Tip:

For more information on expedited passports, visit our Expedited U.S. Passport Application Guide.

Where To Apply for Your Passport

Many places can process passport applications. The U.S. Department of State website has the full list of qualified places. There is likely a passport office somewhere near you.

You must apply in person for your first U.S. passport application, hence why the above information is so important.

If your application is not urgent, it is easiest to apply at a general Passport Acceptance Facility. The wizard at that link can search for places near you, including places that also offer photo services.

The United States Postal Service (USPS) offices also allow you to submit applications. Click the link to search around for the office nearest you.

For those traveling within 2 weeks or who need a foreign visa within 4 weeks, then you’ll need to visit a passport agency. These are, unfortunately, few and far between and may be nowhere near where you’re located. You’ll also have to time the appointment right, as your appointment must be within 14 days of the expected travel.

26 U.S. Passport Agency Locations

If you can’t make it to a passport agency and still need it expedited or just wish to have someone else help you expedite the process, you can also use a private passport expediter like Swift Passport and Visa Services.

There is a great article explaining how to use a private passport expediter. Please note that using such a service should be done with caution.

Expected Time of Delivery

Getting a Delivery
Your passport delivery time can vary widely. But expect it to take at least 3 weeks if you got it in standard delivery. It can take up to a month or 2, depending on how backed up they are. Image Credit: Iakov Filimonov via Shutterstock

The time it takes to receive your passport depends on whether or not you expedite it, where you submit it, and what the workload is currently at the passport offices.

The standard processing time is approximately 10 to 13 weeks. An expedited order is supposed to arrive within 7 to 9 weeks, but could also take longer.

If you enter a passport agency, the expected turnaround time is 3 days. However, international travel must be booked within 72 hours of your appointment.

Be sure to check your online passport status occasionally if you don’t need it immediately. You’ll look up your application using your last name, date of birth, and the last 4 digits of your Social Security number.

If you’re getting your passport expedited, the online status tool likely won’t work for at least a week.

Sometimes there is nothing you can do to further expedite it. As a government process, you can expect it to take a little longer than normal and have minimal customer service. Therefore, it is highly recommended that you apply for your passport well in advance of any upcoming trip!

Hot Tip:

The U.S. Department of State’s application wizard is a useful tool to get you through the passport application process. It’s not an official application, but it will help you figure out what you need.

Special Case (Minors, Outside the U.S.) Passport Applications

There are a few special cases for first-time passport applications: minors under the age of 16, minors ages 16 or 17, and people applying from outside the U.S.

Child's First Passport
You can get your kids passports. You’ll have to go with them and fill out the paperwork, as well as vouch for them as parents. Then, their passports will be good for 5 years. Image Credit: michaeljung via Shutterstock

Passport Processing for Minors Under 16

If you’re under 16 years of age or submitting an application for a minor under the age of 16, there are additional pieces of evidence that must be submitted with the application. The application must also be done in person.

When submitting the DS-11 application for a minor under 16, you must submit proof of citizenship along with a parent’s proof of relationship. At least 1 parent must also provide identifying documentation at the acceptance center.

The parental relationship can be documented on the child’s birth certificate, which can double as the proof of citizenship. Photo identification can be covered with the parent’s or the child’s ID (if they have one).

Parental consent must be given to those under the age of 16 and they cannot apply alone. Both parents or guardians must be present and consent, if available. If a parent can’t be present, the other must bring an affidavit granting permission to give the child a passport. If there is only 1 guardian, then proof can be provided by presenting a proper court order or death certificate.

The passport fee for a minor is slightly lower at $100 for a book, $15 for a card, and $115 for both, in addition to the standard $35 processing fee. Note that the passport will only be good for 5 years instead of the standard 10.

Hot Tip:

For even more information, check out our detailed guide: How to Get a U.S. Passport for Your Baby [Step-by-Step].

Passport Processing for Minors Ages 16 and 17

Although still considered a minor, a 16-year-old or 17-year-old child may apply for a passport on their own, as long as they have the appropriate documentation, including their own ID.

The child must present a completed DS-11 application or renew online with DS-82. If the child does not yet have their own identification, then a parent must be present with ID to identify them. Both parents do not need to be present if the child is 16 or 17.

It is suggested that at least 1 parent is present to show parental awareness. Another way to show parental awareness is to provide a signed written consent letter for the child with a copy of the parent’s photo ID.

Standard adult fees apply for a child of age 16 or 17. Passports for applicants 16 and older are valid for 10 years.

Please note that a child may be denied the ability to obtain a passport if one of the parents has submitted a letter stating they object to the child receiving a passport.

Passport Application Process for a U.S. Citizen or U.S. National Located Outside the U.S.

If you are trying to apply for a U.S. passport, and you are located outside of the U.S. and are a U.S. citizen or national, the process is very similar to applying from within the U.S. However, you must apply through the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.

Similar to the process above, you’ll need to complete the DS-11 application and collect all relevant documentation to bring with you. Passport photos have different requirements depending on which country you are located in, so be sure to follow the U.S. passport photo requirements.

The passport fees are the same, but you must use cash in either U.S. dollars or the local currency that will be converted. You cannot use any other forms of payment.

You cannot apply for an expedited passport from outside the U.S. However, the embassy or agency can issue a limited-validity passport to service your emergency if you are applying for a passport.

Post-passport Duties: Getting Your Visa Lined Up

Congratulations! You’ve got your passport. The next step is to understand how it works, and that enters into the world of visas (not to be confused with the credit card processor of the same name).

Because visas are a complicated world, see our article on the 4 basic types of travel visas.

Final Thoughts

From filling out the application, providing proof of citizenship, getting a photo, and submitting the application, there are many small steps to getting your passport.

If you’re interested in renewing your passport and other special cases in passports, such as a name change, check out the second part of this article: Passport Renewal and Special Cases Guide.

And congratulations! You’ve completed the first step in getting the maximum value out of your travel rewards cards’ points. There are some other things to consider before you get going. Here are some helpful links:


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The Definitive Guide - U.S. Passport Application

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I apply for a U.S. passport?

You can apply for a U.S. passport if you are a U.S. citizen (born or naturalized) or U.S. national. Passport requirements differ whether you live in or outside the U.S. and how you obtained your citizenship.

Can I earn points for purchasing a passport?

Yes, however, you must apply in person as credit cards are only accepted at passport agencies, not via mail.

What’s the difference between a passport book and passport card?

The passport card only allows land or sea entry travel to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. It is wallet-sized (the same as other standard ID cards) rather than the book size of 5 x 3.5 inches. The passport card only costs $30 versus the $130 of a passport book ($15 and $100, respectively, for minors). You can apply for both at the same time.

Where can I get passport photos taken?

You can get your passport photos taken at the majority of large pharmacies and department stores. Certain government offices and other private places may also provide services, as long as they provide the correct photo requirements.

  • Walgreens, CVS, and Rite Aid
  • Walmart and Target
  • FedEx and UPS
  • Photography studios

What are the photo requirements for a U.S. passport?

The photo requirements are detailed online. It must be color, 2 x 2 inches, sized so that the head is 1 to 1 3/8 inches from chin to the top of the head, taken in the last 6 months, taken in front of a white background, taken with a full-face view, and with a neutral or natural smile with both eyes open. The website above also provides additional information if you want to take your own, such as the required resolution and a tool to make your own.

Where can I submit my passport application?

U.S. passport application locations include official passport offices, agencies, and also other government agencies that can accept the application like the county clerk or USPS. For your first time getting a passport, you must go to one of these places in person. If you really need it expedited, you can use a passport agency or a private passport expediter.

How can I get a passport at the post office?

Simply gather all the required paperwork above and go to the office and ask for the application, or fill it out beforehand and submit it.

How can I get a passport fast? Can they be expedited?

To get an expedited passport, you must either pay the expedite fee of $60 at the time of your application, go to a passport agency, or pay for a private expediting company (prices vary). The expedite fee will reduce the 10 to 13 weeks to 7 to 9 weeks. The passport agency can do it in approximately 3 days, but you need evidence of immediate international travel to get an appointment. Time will vary based on backorders and the general time of year.

How do you get a passport for a child?

The passport application for minors (under 16) is very similar to the normal process. You must go to one of the acceptance facilities and complete the paperwork. However, the difference is that you, as the parent, will provide much of your own personal information to prove your relationship with the child. Bring proof of citizenship and identification for you, the child, and both parents. Both parents should attend. If both parents aren’t available, then one needs to come with the approval of the other in the form of an affidavit or proof that the parent has single custody. See the advanced renewal and special cases passport guide for other information.

How can I get a passport online?

You can’t get your first passport online. All first-time passport applications must be done in person at a passport facility.

How long does it take to get a passport?

With standard delivery and processing times, passports take 10 to 13 weeks, depending on the time of year and current backload. The expedited fee can reduce the time to 7 to 9 weeks. Using a passport agency can take up to 3 days.

How much does it cost to get a passport?

The current U.S. passport application fee is $130 for the passport book and $30 for the passport card. Both carry a $35 execution fee, though you can get them both simultaneously and only pay the $35 fee once. A minor’s passport will only cost $100 for the book and $15 for the card. You will also need to pay the $35 execution fee on top of this.

What is the passport application form?

The U.S. passport application form is DS-11.

What is my passport application status?

Your U.S. passport application status can be found online using the passport tracking tool on the U.S. Department of State website.

What information do I need to get my passport?

Along with your form DS-11, you need to have proof of citizenship, proof of identification, photocopies of each of the proofs (individually, front and back), and a passport photo. If you cannot prove your citizenship or identification primarily, you will have to use a secondary proof of citizenship or identification.

How do I expedite my application outside of the U.S.?

You cannot expedite your application outside the U.S. unless you are in a state of emergency. See your local U.S. embassy or consulate for details.

How do I receive my passport overseas?

Depending on the U.S. embassy or consulate, you can either get it hand delivered, through the standard mail service, or pick it up in person.

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About Brian Graham

Brian’s first ever airplane ride was in a private turbo-prop jet. He was merely an intern boy trying to make a good impression, but it turns out the plane made an impression on him.

It wasn’t until Brian relocated to Dallas, TX, and moved in with an American Airlines employee that he truly discovered how incredible travel could be.

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