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Passport Control

To visit a foreign country, generally you need a passport. While there are countries you can visit as a US citizen without a passport, generally in the Caribbean or North America, getting a passport will make things much easier. (And the US government is pretty quickly making sure you'll need one to get back into the country no matter where you go when you leave.) Plus you'll have your passport taken care of in case you have the chance to go somewhere in the near future that does require one.

If you already have a passport, make sure it doesn't expire within six months of your departure. Most countries won't let you cross the border if it does, even if your return ticket is dated well before your passport's expiration. Luckily, renewing a passport is easier than getting a brand new one.

It takes up to six weeks, and possibly longer during periods of high demand, to receive your passport (new or renewed) after your application is received, so you want to get the process started shortly after you've decided to take the trip. You have to provide proof of citizenship when you apply for a new passport, so if you don't have a certified copy of your birth certificate where you can get to it, you'll need to apply for one. Check the web site for your birth state's bureau of vital statistics to find out how to apply. If you happen to live in the capital city of your birth state, you may be able to apply in person and get the certificate the same day, or at least more quickly than applying by mail, but whether or not you can apply in person will vary by state.

Once you have your birth certificate, you can either download a passport application online or pick one up at most post offices. Once you've filled out the application — but don't sign it yet! — take it along with your certified birth certificate, your driver's license or other government ID, and two passport photos to a passport agency or passport acceptance facility. Most photo studios, including ones in department stores or pharmacies, offer passport photo service. If you forget or just don't want to take the time, most passport facilities will take the photos for you for a nominal fee, around $8. However, photos from a studio usually will be more flattering, so the effort may be worth it. Remember, you're stuck with this photo for ten years or so.

In general, passport facilities are less crowded (and you'll receive your passport faster) if you apply in the autumn or winter. Lines start getting longer as we move into spring and can be obnoxious in late spring/early summer, depending on where you live. If you can, try to apply during less busy months. If you have to apply during a high demand period, it may be worth making a drive to a less busy passport facility. Downtown post office passport facilities are almost always busy, for example, so you may want to head to the suburbs. Just make sure you check the facility hours, since they may only be open certain days or a few hours each day.

Found a really good deal on a trip that leaves in a month? You still can get your passport in time, but it's going cost you. The State Department does offer expedited service, which will get you your passport within two weeks. Expedited service costs $60 in addition to regular passport fees, plus the cost of overnight delivery for both sending in your application and having your passport mailed to you (about another $30).

But wait, there may be more! Depending on where you’re going, you may have to get a tourist visa. Don’t just assume that as a US citizen you won’t need a visa; some countries you might think don't require a visa do (for example, Australia). Guide books for the country will say if you need a visa, or search online for the tourism web site of your destination country. The site should say if you need a visa and probably have links to find out how to get a visa if you do need one. For some countries, all you have to do is fill out a form online; for others, you have to go through the country's consulate office or even interview with the consulate staff. This process can be quite time consuming, so do your research as early as you can.

There are services that will take care of getting your passport paperwork all sorted out for you, but you're going to pay a premium if you choose to go that route. Maybe you want to use a service if you’re leaving in a couple of weeks and are freaked out about all the paperwork, but if you're even a little organized, you should be able to do everything on your own.

How much is all this going to cost you? At the moment, the total for a new passport (with all fees), standard service with regular mail delivery runs $100. Renewing a passport costs $75. And if you need a visa, that’s going to have a fee, too; the exact amount will vary from country to country.

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