Plan ahead if renewing your passport during 2016

When does your U.S. passport expire?

OK, maybe not as memorable a date as the birthdays, anniversaries and life-changing events that you’ve committed to memory. But if you’re planning a vacation this year, knowing your passport’s expiration date — and then getting your passport renewed ASAP if it happens to expire in 2016 — will prevent some disappointing things from happening to your long-planned getaway.

That’s because the U.S. Department of State is expecting to face way-higher-than-usual requests for passport renewal this year, and travelers who wait too long to renew their expiring-in-2016 passports might find themselves stranded at home or, worse, at some lonely elsewhere.

Chalk it up, in part, to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which went into effect in 2007 and required Americans traveling to and from Canada, Mexico and Bermuda to present a valid U.S passport or other approved document to enter the United States.

“So, for the first time, Americans had to have a passport to travel to Canada and Mexico, which were, and remain, the No. 1 and No. 2 destinations for Americans traveling outside the United States,” said Brenda Sprague, deputy assistant secretary for passport services at the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.

The new regulations spurred an unprecedented jump in passport applications, and the State Department reported that it issued more than 18 million passports in 2007 as a result of the new law. But, Sprague said, “we underestimated demand and we were caught flat and it was a nightmare, and we resolved that we would not let that happen again.”

U.S. passports for adults are valid for 10 years, and that means the first wave of passports obtained as a result of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative begin to expire this year. “We’ve been keeping an eye on things and working very hard to make sure we’re not caught short this year,” Sprague said.

Toward that end, the department has kicked off a campaign urging Americans to apply for passport renewals or new passports early, even before the passports actually expire and long before their planned 2016 trips arrive, to avoid potential delays caused by what it expects to be a crush of renewal applications throughout the year.

The department issued 14 million passports in 2014 and more than 14.3 million passports and passport cards in 2015. More than 126 million passports are in circulation, Sprague said, versus only about 7.9 million in 1989, and about 40 percent of Americans now hold passports.

As a result, Sprague said 2016 is expected “to be busy” on the renewal front, while 2017 will “be busier, and ’18 will still be pretty heavy demand. So it’s going to be an elevated level of demand for the next three years.”

Rene Schneeberger, travel agency manager for AAA Northern California, Nevada and Utah, said AAA’s travel counselors “encourage people, always, to renew their passports before they expire. So if you have, especially, (an expiration) date of June or July of 2016, you should definitely have submitted your application by now and, frankly, I would have done it a few weeks ago.”

Generally, Schneeberger said, the best time to renew a passport falls “between late December and sort of early to mid-February, (when) volume is weakest and they can process them quicker.”

But, he added, the impending arrival of spring break and then the spring and summer travel seasons increases demand for passports and passport renewals. That, in turn, increases the chances that the longer travelers wait to renew, the better their chances of receiving their new passport uncomfortably close to their departure dates.

Another key point: Even a passport that is several months away from expiration may be, for practical travel purposes, already as good as expired. That’s because many countries require that tourists have at least six months’ time remaining on their passports.

“So, it’s real important that people check their validity and be sure you have at least six months,” Sprague said.

Maria Lilibeth Ruiz, director of marketing for Prestige Travel and Cruises American Express, said travelers who book their own trips through online sites may be particularly susceptible to missing such passport-related details.

Travel counselors routinely “ask for a passport or ask questions about (a client’s) passport,” she said. “Otherwise, they find themselves in quite a pickle because, then, they don’t meet that six-month validity requirement.”

Sprague said the State Department estimates that a standard passport renewal (which costs $110 for adults) will take as long as six weeks. Expedited service, available for an additional $60, will see the traveler receiving a passport in three weeks. And, for emergency situations, in-person service — which will see an applicant receiving a passport in about eight business days — is available by appointment at a State Department passport agency (there are none in Las Vegas, but there are offices in Tucson, Ariz., Los Angeles and San Francisco).

While early renewals always are preferred, “we try to accommodate anyone with an emergency need, because we have two things that are hardwired into our DNA,” Sprague said. “The first one is, the only people who get a passport are those who are entitled to one. And the second one is, no missed trips, and we really take that very much to heart.”

By the way: While you’re checking out your own passport’s expiration date, check out your kids’ passports, too. Passports for children younger than 16 expire in five years, rather than adults’ 10 years.

For more information about the Apply Early program and links to information about passports and travel, visit the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ passport and international travel website (travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/passports/information/apply-early.html).

— Read more from John Przybys at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com and follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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