I know that many of my posts and trips talk about elaborate methods I use to earn miles and spend them.  I also constantly talk about otherwise wacky things like “going to Hong Kong for the weekend, no seriously” as if they’re commonplace.  While it seems normal for me I know many of you out there look at it all and are like “wait what?!”  At the behest of a good friend of mine, we’re going to get back to the basics.

The series is called Travel 101.  We’re going to cover quite a bit of ground but the goal of the series is to get someone ready for their first international trip, all the way from getting a passport to coming back home.

While this first post will be geared towards Americans, the rest of the series should be useful for anyone getting ready to travel abroad.  I’m looking forward to sharing some good information with you!


Step 1: Figure out how quickly you need your passport

The passport fee is fairly substantial ($135 for a first-time applicant as of the publish date of this post).  The US Department of State lists the current processing estimates on their website here.  Usually a regular processing time will be between 4-8 weeks.  If you can plan ahead this will save you a good bit of money.  Expedited processing costs an extra $60 on top of the other fees but cuts your waiting time down to 2-4 weeks.  Other options for even quicker processing are available but we’ll get to those in a little bit.

Step 2: Get your documents together

Since getting a passport requires interaction with the government you can imagine there is some paperwork involved.  It’s not too bad though.  Before you begin, gather the following documents:

  • Proof of citizenship (certified birth certificate, consular letter if you were born aboard, naturalization certificate, certificate of citizenship)
  • Proof of identity (driver’s license, social security card, other state-issued identification)
  • A photocopy of your proof of identity
  • Form DS-11 from the US Department of State.  Have this filled out already but DO NOT SIGN IT.  You’ll do this in front of the officer at the passport office.

Step 3: Go take a great-looking passport picture!

There are very strict guidelines about passport photos.  No hats, no smiles, white background, and very specific dimensions.  I’m a semi-professional photographer with gobs of gear with which to take pictures but I ended up going to a local CVS/Walgreens/etc. and paying $10 to get mine taken like everyone else does.  It’s the easiest way, trust me, you don’t want to have your application delayed simply because your picture was actually taken with Snapchat and the floral crown filter.

Step 4: Go to a Passport Acceptance Facility or a Passport Agency (in an emergency)

If you’re applying for a passport for the first time you’ll need to apply in person (if you’re renewing a passport you can do that via mail).  There are two places to do this: an official Department of State Passport Agency or a Passport Acceptance Facility.

Most of you will end up at a Passport Acceptance Facility for routine processing (you can do expedited processing from here too).  Many post offices, county clerks, and other government buildings are Passport Acceptance Facilities.  The easiest way to find the one closest to you is to use the Department of State’s locator.

The only time to go to a passport agency is if you have eminent international travel and/or an emergency, can pay the expedited fee, and make an appointment by calling 1-877-487-2778.  Passport agencies are located around the USA:

Step 5: Complete your application and pay the fee

A State Department official must witness you signing your application, which is why you didn’t sign the application in Step 2.  They will make sure everything is in order and then you will pay the fee.  Bring two checks or money orders if you’re applying at an Acceptance Facility and if you’re in an emergency situation and applying at a Passport Agency you can pay with a credit card or check/money order.  If you’d like to have express shipping for your new passport to be returned to you it will be an additional $20.66.

Step 6: Wait patiently and then enjoy your new passport!


When your passport arrives it’s a good idea to doublecheck all of the information and then make a copy of the information page (to be stored separately in case you lose your passport).  A US passport is one of the most powerful documents in the world so be sure to put it in a safe place like, you know, a safe!


I hope you enjoyed this quick overview on getting your first passport.  Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments below!

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