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Delays in passport renewals are putting a damper in Americans' summer travel plans

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Planning a summer trip overseas and need a passport? Get in line. And it's a long one. The U.S. State Department says that it's receiving an unprecedented demand for passports - over 400,000 applications each week. Processing times for passports have become longer. Travelers who applied this week face a wait of up to 13 weeks. That would be the last week of September. Clint Henderson is the managing news editor at The Points Guy. He joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

CLINT HENDERSON: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Why so long?

HENDERSON: Well, they're blaming COVID. Basically, during the pandemic, demand plummeted, and a lot of the processing went away. And obviously, a lot of workers stayed home, so they weren't processing as many passport applications. And then, when travel came roaring back - and roaring back, it did - they were left with being short-staffed, and they just didn't have enough people to process all the applications that were coming in. And really, it's at record levels, so not as quick as they were, like everything else in travel, as they were before the pandemic.

SIMON: And this applies to new passports and renewals?

HENDERSON: That's correct. And they had rolled out a online renewal that was working sort of hit or miss, but it had a lot of bugs. The system was crashing and stuff. So they've taken that offline, and that's supposed to come back at the end of the year. That should help. And obviously, those folks having to get in the line with the folks who need new passports is not helping the situation right now.

SIMON: How is this affecting international travel this summer?

HENDERSON: Well, a lot of people are waking up realizing they have an expired passport, or it's going to take a long time. And they're having to scramble to either scrub the trips altogether or try to do an emergency passport situation, which puts further strains on the system.

SIMON: Explain to us the emergency process.

HENDERSON: So traditionally, say you had a family who was in Italy, and someone passed away suddenly, and you didn't have a passport, and you needed to go to the funeral. There's a system in place so that you can get an emergency passport in those situations. That system still exists, but it's under strain just like the rest of the system. So what they're requiring now is not only proof that there's been some kind of emergency event, like the death of a relative, but you have to show that you're traveling within 72 hours. And you now have to get an appointment. You can't just show up at a passport office. You have to get an appointment on the phone.

There is also urgent passports within two weeks of travel. And that's really the only time right now that your local congressman is going to be able to get involved because traditionally, Congress people's offices have a dedicated staff member just to deal with passport issues. The problem is they're running into the same problem that we all are, which is trouble getting a hold of people. And the State Department is essentially telling even Congress people that they're only going to get involved if the travel is within two weeks. They're really only getting involved in those urgent situations.

SIMON: What could help?

HENDERSON: Doing the process as early as possible. The top tips I tell people all the time, though, is pay for the expedited service. It's an extra 60 bucks when you go to get the passport. But talk about being worth every penny. That certainly is it. Also pay for express shipping for your passport - two-day shipping around $18 and totally worth it. I will say that we've seen some progress. I've been reporting on this problem for the past year. It looks like there's some light at the end of the tunnel. I think by the end of the year they'll have processing times down, and they will also have the online renewal.

SIMON: Clint Anderson, travel reporter and the managing news editor at The Points Guy. Thanks so much for being with us, and happy travels.

HENDERSON: Happy travels.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MR. AIRPLANE MAN")

HOWLIN' WOLF: (Singing) Mr. Airplane Man, will you fly to Jackson for me? I want you to fly... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Lennon Sherburne