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Finally: US passport processing back to pre-pandemic timeframe

If your passport’s expiration date is coming up in the next year, there’s a bit of good news. For the first time, passport processing times are back down to what they were before the pandemic, the U.S. State Department said Tuesday.

Processing times for new passports and those being renewed are now estimated at six to eight weeks for routine service. For expedited service, which costs an extra $60, wait times are an estimated two to three weeks.

The announcement comes as welcome news for travelers, with longer wait times the norm over the nearly four years since the pandemic began.

“With this update, we have fulfilled our commitment to return to benchmarks from March 2020,” the Department of State said in a statement Tuesday.

A tumultuous four years

Passport processing times first spiked in early 2020 as workers stayed home at the outset of the pandemic, leading to monthslong delays in many cases.

I, for one, sent my expiring passport in for renewal in February 2020, just days before COVID-19 began to significantly affect our daily lives. I didn’t receive a new passport until July 2020 — about five months later.

Then, after the initial backlog created by the pandemic, two key factors came into play: First, as travel began to bounce back, many Americans realized their passport had expired while international travel was largely on hold — leading to an influx of applications.

Then there’s the fact that domestic and international travel has boomed over the last couple of years, creating a crush of demand for new passports that was difficult for the State Department to efficiently field.

As recently as this fall, average wait times were estimated at eight to 11 weeks or more.

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The State Department processed a record 22 million passports and passport books in the 2022 fiscal year and beat that in fiscal year 2023 with 24 million as part of a wave of “unprecedented” demand.

That demand for international travel — in the wake of pandemic backlogs — has similarly contributed to long wait times for Global Entry applicants to land an interview for the expedited passport control program; it continues to set new membership records. (Global Entry interview wait times, though, remain at an average of four to six months, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.)

Growing interest in international travel

The tens of millions of passports processed in recent years also speaks to the growing number of Americans interested in traveling abroad, government officials said.

In 1990, just 5% of Americans had a passport, the State Department said. Today, it’s 48%. The 160 million active U.S. passports in circulation are double the number seen in 2007, just 16 years ago.

Now, though, travelers can expect renewal times on par with those of 2019 and earlier.

Bottom line

If you’re thinking of renewing your passport, you should still take action at least six months before your current one expires. However, with wait times more normalized, some travelers may feel more comfortable opting for routine service instead of paying $60 for expedited processing.

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