Beyond ruining tourists’ travel plans, U.S. passport delays are snarling companies’ ability to conduct their affairs abroad, and the disruptions to operations are impacting everyone from C-suite executives to field technicians who are required to travel.
Getting a passport or renewing one used to be a reliable, straightforward process taking about two to four weeks. COVID changed that. Even in this post-pandemic world, travelers now may face months of delays, spoiling vacation and business plans abroad, due to backlogs and understaffing at the U.S. State Department.
We sat down with BAL Senior Counsel Tiffany Derentz and Immigration Manager Paulina Morelos to learn what is causing the delays, how companies are being impacted and what they can do.
Q: Tiffany, you’re a member of BAL’s Government Strategies team and a former State Department official. What is the State Department saying about the unprecedented passport delays?
Derentz: There are a few factors impacting passport processing: First, there was a surge back in 2017, following record passport issuance in 2007, and increased demand nearly every year since then. Second, the department never fully recovered from the backlogs created between 2017 and 2019. And third, the COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted consular services.
A record 22 million U.S. passports were issued in fiscal year 2022, and the State Department expects 2023 numbers will exceed that. With COVID restrictions finally easing, weekly passport applications were up as much as 40% above 2022 numbers in the first quarter this year, according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a recent press report. The State Department was receiving 500,000 applications per week through May this year, and around 400,000 per week during peak summer travel months. In a recent social media post, the department said it has authorized up to 40,000 overtime hours per month to try to keep up with demand. More Americans have U.S. passports today than at any time in our history.
Q: Can’t someone just go to a State Department Passport Agency in the nearest metro area to file a passport application directly, and wouldn’t that help to shorten processing times?
Derentz: Previously, yes, a U.S. citizen could make an appointment to visit a nearby Passport Agency and apply in person. However, demand is so high, in-person appointments are simply not available right now.
Q: Is it true other requirements have also been added to the expedited service process?
Derentz: The State Department breaks services down into four categories: (1) routine, (2) expedited, (3) urgent travel and (4) emergency. The latter three categories require that the international travel be within a certain time frame, and some applicants have been asked to provide proof of a travel itinerary. Many individuals are finding themselves in quite a stressful situation — they need their passport within a number of days but have no certainty whatsoever that they will have it back in time for their travel.
Q: Paulina, what kinds of disruptions are businesses experiencing due to their employees’ passport delays?
Morelos: Passport delays can lead do any number of disruptions to business travel, including missing important meetings. Companies can also face staffing gaps if workers’ passports expire and they are unable to travel. Sometimes it is workers’ children’s passports that cause delays. Newborns need passports, and children’s passports are good for only five years.
Second passports are often needed for frequent travelers because, when they need to apply for visas for certain places, their primary passport stays with the consulate office in the U.S. while the visa is processed. Travelers need to submit a letter from their employers justifying the business need they have for the individual to hold more than one passport.
Q: What does it take to get an emergency passport?
Morelos: To qualify for one, a person must prove a medical, family or business emergency and provide specific documents. Although it is easier to get an emergency passport at a U.S. consulate abroad, getting an appointment for one is difficult because appointments are limited.
Q: What other ramifications should people be aware of?
Morelos: Another consideration is, because the need is so great, we are seeing more scams. There are many online companies promising expedited passport services, but buyer beware! People are paying these companies high fees only to discover they are then stuck waiting the same processing time for the government to process their applications.
Q: What can companies do to help their employees and avoid the business disruptions we’ve discussed?
Morelos: Companies can inform their employees about the reality of today’s lengthy passport processing delays to help them plan accordingly. Also, BAL offers reliable expedited passport processing services. The caveat is that people must reach out to the firm before they apply for the passports themselves. Once the application process has started, we cannot assist. They would need to either wait until the passport is issued or withdraw their application.
In most cases, if corporate clients are proactive and can notify BAL of an employee’s need to travel on a specific date or within a certain time frame, the firm can obtain passports in as little as five to 10 business days after applying for them. Current wait times otherwise can stretch up to 15 weeks.
Q: How can people reach you for more information on BAL’s expedited passport processing service?
Morelos: They are welcome to contact their BAL attorney or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tiffany Derentz leads BAL’s Washington, D.C. office. Tiffany joined BAL after nearly a decade with the U.S. State Department in the Bureau of Consular Affairs and as a senior adviser to the Chief Legal Adviser for immigration affairs. Tiffany served as a consular officer at multiple posts overseas and has experience adjudicating U.S. passport applications. She has direct in-person experience working with consular sections worldwide as well as the Passport Office.
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