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Passport delays are derailing U.S. travelers' vacations

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you are planning to travel abroad this summer and need to apply for a new passport, good luck with that. Routine processing times are as long as 13 weeks. To put that in perspective, we've got fewer than 11 weeks of summer left.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The U.S. State Department is getting more than 400,000 new applications a week. Clint Henderson of The Points Guy travel website says officials blame COVID for the delays.

CLINT HENDERSON: 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.

MARTIN: The delays also apply to passport renewals.

HENDERSON: 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.

MARTÍNEZ: Henderson says all this is affecting international travel.

HENDERSON: 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.

MARTIN: You can still get a passport for an emergency, like the death of an immediate relative, for travel within three business days. But you will still need to call for an appointment. Barring an emergency, Henderson recommends applying for a passport as early as possible.

HENDERSON: 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.

MARTÍNEZ: The State Department's website acknowledges that some customers are facing extended wait times when calling the National Passport Information Center and says it's taking steps to improve the experience.

HENDERSON: 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.

MARTIN: You can also reach out to the office of your congressional representative for help within 14 days of your travel date. Henderson says they should have a dedicated staff member to deal with passport issues, but they're running into the same problem as others - trouble getting a hold of people.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Michel, you know, a few years ago, I won $12 in the California lottery.

MARTIN: Really?

MARTÍNEZ: And I thought if I won 12 million, I wouldn't be ready to take off because my passport wasn't up to date.

MARTIN: (Laughter). OK, well, that's a very interesting approach to staying ready for stuff. But OK, it works if it works for you. So are you good to go now?

MARTÍNEZ: Oh, it'll be NPR Madagascar bureau tomorrow.

MARTIN: A hundred percent. A hundred percent.

MARTÍNEZ: If I win. Yeah, there you go.

MARTIN: OK. OK. And I'll just say, if you stay ready, you don't have to get ready.

MARTÍNEZ: That's - there you go. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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