As Americans finally begin to take their long-awaited vacation, a surprising number of them realize that before they can go abroad, they must first take a different kind of trip: to an American agency. acceptance of passports.
During the most significant travel stop in modern history, hundreds of thousands of Americans allowed their passports to expire. Others only see now that their documents will expire soon. But despite the State Department moving forward on a massive backlog of passport applications that built up in the early months of the pandemic, appointments at passport agencies across the country remain elusive and the Processing time for renewals by mail is 10 weeks or more late. The crisis is forcing many Americans in urgent need of travel documents to travel significant distances – sometimes even across the country – for an in-person appointment that will allow their documents to be processed on time.
One of them is Ben Williams, an office manager at an Atlanta law firm. In April, as Mr Williams eagerly awaited a trip to the Dominican Republic with his girlfriend in early June, he realized his passport was about to expire. He mailed it in for renewal and paid for expedited processing, which before the pandemic would have taken up to three weeks. After five weeks, with his passport still being processed and the departure of his trip imminent, he began searching online for an appointment at one of the 26 official passport centers and agencies in the Department of ‘State, where he could renew in person and get the document in one day. It was much harder than he had imagined.
“I was told they post new appointments at midnight, so every night at 11:55 pm I would be on standby, refreshing my browser,” Williams said. He also called the office of his congressman, Republican Rep. Buddy Carter, daily during his lunch break, asking if the official could help. He was told there were 50 passport applications before his.
As a last resort, Mr. Williams joined a Facebook group for Americans struggling with visa and passport issues, where a member of the group offered her a date in Chicago that she no longer needed. On June 4, three days before his planned trip, he took a day off, spent $ 400 on plane tickets from Atlanta and $ 120 on Uber rides. He made it to the Chicago passport agency on time and got his passport the same day.
“I tried to stay balanced on this because the Covid-19 crisis has really given me the opportunity to realize that there are a lot of people in a worse situation than me,” Williams said. . “But I had moments of frustration. I felt like I was following the movements correctly and contacting the right people. And I was like, ‘How do other people get dates?’ “
State Department officials would not offer details of how many Americans are currently struggling to get their passports renewed or new documents processed, but they said in a statement that after drastically cutting back passport operations in March 2020 to protect its staff from contracting Covid-19, appointments to their limited number of passport agencies – the only option for last-minute documents – are generally limited to life-or-death emergencies. Americans seeking passports for non-essential travel are offered “very limited appointments” and are required to present documentation that their travel takes place within 72 hours.
Routine passport service by mail, according to the State Department, can now take up to 18 weeks, down from six to eight weeks before the pandemic, while expedited service, which costs an additional $ 60 and took days three weeks before Covid-19, can now take up to 12 weeks.
“What’s happening now is something I’ve never seen in my life,” said David Alwadish, founder of ItsEasy Passport & Visa, an accelerator service. Mr Alwadish said that while an estimated 100,000 Americans abroad faced passport problems earlier this year due to consular closures around the world, the number of Americans in the country who cannot travel because ‘they can not get documents is probably much higher.
“It is heartbreaking in cases where someone is dying or very ill,” Alwadish said.
Americans who need passports faster than current processing times allow must show proof of impending travel within 72 hours of their appointment. But many have found a way around that restriction, said Rick Grobart, who runs a management consulting firm in Chicago. He flew from Chicago to Seattle in April to renew his own passport, getting a midnight appointment for 9:30 a.m. the next morning. He secured a seat on the morning’s first flight from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, making it to the meeting thanks to the two-hour time difference in Seattle.
Mr Grobart landed the meeting three days before a scheduled departure for Mexico, which he admits was extremely lucky. Other travelers, he said, are willing to rack up additional costs if their timing isn’t so fortuitous. “Having to show proof of travel within three days just doesn’t make sense, because what are the chances of that lining up?” ” He said. “You end up buying fake tickets to the cheapest place in the country you can find, adding to the cost of doing business.”
Like Mr. Williams in Atlanta, thousands of Americans trying to obtain passports seek help from their representatives in Congress, with mixed success.
Brittanie Dillard, 36, a car salesman in Pensacola, Fla., Was elated in April when her boyfriend surprised her with tickets to Costa Rica, but she faced a big problem: she didn’t have passport, which she had never told him. boyfriend. As a voter for Rep. Matt Gaetz and Senator Marco Rubio, she reached out to both Republican lawmakers’ offices for help. A social worker in Senator Rubio’s office was able to get him a date – but it was in Miami, a 9.5-hour drive away.
She drove all night to get there, and slept a few hours in an Airbnb before receiving her papers and hitting the road. She estimates that the trip cost her $ 500, as well as a day off from work.
“I believe it is my right, as a taxpayer citizen, to be able to obtain my passport and to be able to enter and leave the country freely,” Ms. Dillard said. “Not only is the rest of the country already open, but senators have more to do than try to help us get our passports.”
Representative Mark DeSaulnier, a Democrat from California, said requests for help from his office with passport issues had doubled.
“It’s a perfect storm,” he said. “As people come out of Covid they are eager to travel and agencies are understaffed. “
Representative Frederica S. Wilson, a Democrat from Florida, is also experiencing a spike. “My office is seeing a significant increase in the number of resident passport applications, inside and outside the district I represent,” she said in an email. “Voters complained that it was almost impossible to reach anyone by phone or make an appointment.”
In an effort to ease the crush, the State Department has announced a limited number of passport acceptance lounges across the country, but they are primarily aimed at children and new passport applicants and do not offer urgent service.
However, until the State Department can meet the demand, Americans needing a passport in less than four weeks have limited options and can also expect to pay extra. A same-day expedited passport costs $ 170, with an additional $ 35 for new applicants. This does not take into account any airline tickets, car rentals or hotel reservations required for those traveling for their appointments.
“I’m lucky the $ 500 I spent wasn’t a number that would cripple me,” said Grobart, the consultant who flew from Chicago to Seattle. “But I know the same $ 500 could have meant a ton more for someone else.”
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