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How to Plan a Vacation Abroad: Part Two, Passport Edition

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I finally sent off my passport application in the mail today. My old one wasn’t expired, but several years ago I changed my name very slightly (that “k” started out as a “c”) and although it was a minor change which is overlooked surprisingly often in somewhat official situations, I didn’t want to take any chances of being turned away in customs. Not on this trip! Then, too, there was my travel companion to consider; he doesn’t currently have a passport and needed to apply as well. During the whole application process, I learned quite a bit. So I thought I’d share some of the more useful info I garnered.

If you need a new passport for any reason (whether it’s your first one, a renewal, an update, or to replace one that’s been lost or stolen) the first place on the Web you’ll want to visit — assuming you’re a United States citizen, that is — is the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. It has a very thorough (although somewhat convoluted) section on passports, which you can access here. Depending on which of those reasons fits your specific circumstance, there are different forms that need to be filled out, different fees that need to be paid, and different identifications and documents that need to be presented, either in person or via mail.

With careful navigation, you can make it through the process, but here are a few major tips. First of all, when it comes to photos and application processing, do not trust the USPS Web site. It is not completely accurate concerning which locations will snap passport photos on site and which will process passport applications without an appointment, as I found out much to my chagrin. Just go to a camera store — or even easier, a convenience store with a photo desk — and they can probably take one for you there.

Next, be sure to apply plenty early or you’ll get smacked with additional fees. And when you do go to apply, triple check to make sure all your ducks are in a row. Have you filled out the correct form? Do you have all the appropriate personal documentation? Is it properly photocopied? Have you enclosed the correct fee? (FYI: The passport fee and the execution fee — if you need to pay it — are paid separately.) If you’ve written a check, did you also include your full name and date of birth on the front? Is everything in a secure means of packaging? Have you requested a traceable delivery method that can be delivered to a P.O. Box? (I’m still not 100 percent on this one, but I believe that probably means it doesn’t require a signature. Can anyone confirm or deny this?) Anyway, as you can see, it’s an involved process which is why I’m glad I can now just sit back and wait for the mailman! Well, while occasionally tracking my application’s status online, that is.

Are there any destinations you’re dying to visit? I’d also welcome passport or planning tips from veteran travelers! Oh, and if you aren’t already, don’t forget you can follow How-to Stuff on Facebook and Twitter. You can also head over to iTunes and download our new HowStuffWorks iPhone app!

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