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When Americans finally begin their long-awaited vacation, a surprising number of them realize that before they can go abroad they must first make another trip: to a U.S. passport collection point.
During the largest travel stop in modern history, hundreds of thousands of Americans have their passports expired. Others are only now seeing that their documents are about to expire. But while the State Department is moving forward with a massive backlog of passport applications that piled up in the first few months of the pandemic, appointments with passport authorities across the country remain elusive, and processing time for extensions by mail is delayed by 10 weeks or more. The crisis is forcing many Americans in desperate need of travel documents to travel significant distances – sometimes across the country – for a face-to-face appointment that has their documents processed on time.
Ben Williams, the office manager of an Atlanta law firm, is one of them. In April, as Mr Williams was looking forward to a trip to the Dominican Republic with his girlfriend in early June, he realized that his passport was about to expire. He sent it in for renewal and paid for expedited processing, which would have taken up to three weeks before the pandemic. After five weeks, while his passport was still being processed and his trip was imminent, he began searching online for an appointment at one of the State Department’s 26 official passport centers and passport agencies where he could personally renew and get the document in one day. It was a lot more difficult than he had imagined.
“I was told they were releasing new appointments at midnight, so I would be on standby at 11:55 pm every night and refresh my browser,” Williams said. He also called the office of his Congressman, Republican Rep. Buddy Carter, every day during his lunch break to ask if the officer could help. He was told there were 50 passport requests in front of him.
As a last resort, Mr. Williams joined a Facebook group for Americans struggling with visa and passport problems, where a group member offered him an appointment in Chicago that she no longer needed. On June 4, three days before his planned trip, he took a day off, spending $ 400 on flights from Atlanta and another $ 120 on Uber trips. He made it to the Chicago passport office on time and got his passport that same day.
“I tried to stay calm because the Covid-19 crisis really gave me the opportunity to see that many people are worse off than me,” Williams said. “But I’ve had moments of frustration. I felt like I was taking the steps right and reaching out to the right people. And I thought, ‘How do other people get appointments?’ “
State Department officials would not provide any information on the number of Americans currently struggling to renew passports or process new documents, but they said in a statement that after the significant reduction in passport operations in March 2020, to keep their employees from contagion Protecting with Covid-19, appointments to their limited number of passport agencies – the only option for last minute documents – are generally limited to life-threatening emergencies. Americans seeking passports for unnecessary travel are offered “very limited appointments” and are required to provide documents showing that their trip is within 72 hours.
The routine mail passport service can now take up to 18 weeks, according to the State Department, compared to six to eight weeks prior to the pandemic, while the expedited service, which costs an additional $ 60 and previously took a few days to three weeks from 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 express delivery company. Alwadish said that while an estimated 100,000 Americans abroad faced passport issues earlier this year due to consular closings around the world, the number of Americans at home unable to travel because they cannot get documents is likely much higher.
“It’s heartbreaking when someone dies or is very sick,” said Alwadish.
Americans needing passports faster than current processing times allow must provide proof of upcoming travel within 72 hours of their appointment. But many have found a way to get around that limitation, said Rick Grobart, who runs a management consultancy in Chicago. He flew from Chicago to Seattle in April to renew his own passport and secured an appointment at midnight for 9:30 the next morning. He got a seat on the first morning flight from O’Hare International Airport in Chicago and made it to the appointment thanks to the two-hour time difference in Seattle.
Mr. Grobart got the appointment three days before the scheduled departure for Mexico, which he admits was very lucky. Other travelers are willing to bear additional costs if their timing is not so random. “It’s crazy to have to show proof of travel within three days because what’s the likelihood of it coming up?” He said. “In the end, you buy dummy tickets for the cheapest place outside the country that you can find and calculate with the business costs.”
Like Mr. Williams in Atlanta, thousands of Americans trying to secure their passports turn to their congressmen for help with mixed success.
Brittanie Dillard, 36, a car saleswoman in Pensacola, Florida, was delighted when her boyfriend surprised her with tickets to Costa Rica in April, but she faced a big problem: she didn’t have a passport, which she had never told her boyfriend. As a voter for MP Matt Gaetz and Senator Marco Rubio, she reached out to both offices of the Republican legislature for help. A clerk from Senator Rubio’s office was able to get her an appointment – but in Miami, a 9.5-hour drive away.
She drove all night to get there and slept on an Airbnb for a couple of hours before receiving her documents and hitting the streets again. She estimates the trip cost her $ 500 plus a day off from work.
“I believe that it is my right as a taxpayer to get my passport and to be able to enter and leave the country freely,” said Ms. Dillard. “Not only is the rest of the country open, the senators have other things to do than help us get our passports.”
Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, a California Democrat, said requests to his office for help with passport issues had doubled.
“It’s a perfect storm,” he said. “When people get out of Covid, they are fond of traveling and then the agencies are understaffed.”
Representative Frederica S. Wilson, a Democrat from Florida, also sees an increase. “My office has seen a significant increase in passport applications from residents both inside and outside the district I represent,” she said in an email. “Voters have complained that it was almost impossible to reach someone over the phone or to make an appointment.”
To ease the rush, the State Department has announced a limited number of passport acceptance fairs across the country, but these are primarily aimed at children and first-time passport applicants and do not offer rush service.
However, until the State Department can meet demand, Americans who need a passport in less than four weeks have limited options and can expect additional payments as well. A same-day expedited passport costs $ 170, with an additional $ 35 for first-time applicants. It does not take into account airfares, rental cars or hotel reservations for those traveling on their appointments.
“I’m lucky that the $ 500 I spent wasn’t a number that would paralyze me,” said Mr. Grobart, the advisor who flew from Chicago to Seattle. “But I know the same $ 500 could have been a ton more to someone else.”
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