The U.S. State Department expects 20.5 million applications for new and renewed passports this year, and that will be a record number.
The busy year is no surprise. Adult U.S. passports must be renewed every 10 years, and it was 10 years ago that a new law went into effect requiring passports for Americans traveling to Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean. That new law resulted in a surge of passport requests in 2007, along with extraordinary delays that stretched into months for some individuals.
This year the State Department says it is beating promised turnaround times of six to eight weeks for processing passports.
"In 2007, it was not a good situation," Brenda Sprague, deputy assistant secretary for passport services, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We did a lot of post-mortem discussions and have spent 10 years getting ready for this and addressing all the challenges we expected to come. We are extremely busy but I am pleased to say that we are so far, knock wood, staying well ahead of the curve."
Many travelers say they've gotten their passports processed in just a few weeks.
It took two weeks for Helen Prochilo to renew her passport in March compared with more than a month 10 years ago. "And we've not heard of delays from any clients," said Prochilo of Promal Vacations, a New York-based travel agency.
Dylan Gallagher, owner of Orange Sky Adventures, a San Francisco-based tour company, sent his passport in for renewal this year and got it back within a month. "Easy as pie," he said, adding that in 2007, it took two to three months, "so long (that) I thought they lost my application."
At the end of April this year, the State Department had already processed more than 11 million passports, a combination of renewals and new documents. Typically about 40 percent of passport applications are renewals. Spring and summer are the busiest season for passport applications as travelers gear up for vacations.
Last year the State Department processed 16.8 million passports, but the yearly average is closer to 13 million.
The number of Americans who hold passports has increased dramatically over the years, from an estimated 25 percent of the population holding passports in 2006 to about 41 percent now. Factors in the increase include not only the law requiring passports for travel to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, but also cheaper international flights and the fact that millennials tend to travel more and at a younger age than previous generations.
Tips from Sprague for avoiding passport hassles:
—Make sure your photos meet the requirements as described at the State Department's website. Among other things: You can't wear glasses or a hat in a passport photo, you must look directly at the camera, the photo must be shot against a light background and your expression should be neutral, though a smile is OK. Sprague said CVS, Walmart and other purveyors of passport photos have worked with the State Department to make sure their passport photos meet standards.
—Keep an eye on the expiration date on your passport. Many countries require that your passport be valid for six months after you cross their border, so you might need to renew earlier than you think.
—Check the travel.state.gov website for rules on passports for minors. Their passports must be renewed every five years and both parents must appear when the application is submitted, among other detailed requirements.