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Need a Passport for That Summer Trip? Stand in Line

Applications: Processing time is a month or longer due to last winter's federal budget crisis. Expect to pay extra for quick service.

April 21, 1996|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Getting a new or updated passport has never been the most stimulating aspect of foreign travel, but when the federal government budget deadlock shut down the U.S. Passport Office last winter, it became downright demoralizing. And if you're planning an international trip this summer, be advised that the fallout from that debacle is apparently still slowing service.

Passport officials in Los Angeles and elsewhere say they're still dealing with substantial backlogs, and federal officials estimate that applications are up 8% from this time last year. Although the Los Angeles office's recorded message has been forecasting a two-week processing period, Regional Director Timothy Wiesnet and other officials say that travelers should allow four to six weeks.

If travelers fail to leave that much processing time, they may need to make a special expedited request--which since 1994 has carried an extra $30 fee, and is often accompanied by unproductive pre-travel suspense.

Wiesnet estimates that as of late March, his office had about 14,000 passport applications pending, up from an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 at this time last year. The current total, Wiesnet said, "is as high as we've been. . . . Following the furlough, we got behind the eight ball, and it's been difficult to recover."

In fact, many others among the 13 regional passport offices around the country have even higher backlogs, the aftermath of the mail applications that accumulated while their offices were shut down during the federal budget crisis of November, December and January. Federal officials estimated that nationwide backlog at 237,000 as of March 22. (A year before, the figure was 192,000.)

Los Angeles has a higher ratio of walk-up to mail-in applications than other regional passport offices, Wiesnet noted, due in part to this area's high number of recently naturalized citizens who seek passports in person. Though this often makes for long lines in the agency's lobby at 11000 Wilshire Blvd., during the shutdown it meant less accumulated mail.

But even a below-average share is substantial. Nationwide, the Passport Office, which is a part of the U.S. State Department's Consular Affairs bureau, handled 5.3 million requests for new and renewed passports in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, the agency's busiest fiscal year in its history. That total is expected to rise to 5.6 million this fiscal year. (Though congressional budget disputes persist, funding for passport agencies has been approved by Congress though Sept. 30, protecting the office from another budget-related shutdown until then.)

In Southern California, from Bakersfield and San Luis Obispo south, about 70 post offices serve as passport application acceptance facilities. Travelers can find the acceptance facility nearest to them by asking at their local post offices.

Federal officials say that using those satellite sites well in advance of your travels offers great advantages over waiting until late in the game and showing up at the regional passport office.

"During our peak season, just the Los Angeles agency alone will issue anywhere from 2,000 to 2,400 passports per day," Wiesnet says. "We'll frequently have 700 people applying in person in our lobby. So if you wait until the last minute, it's a difficult, time-consuming and sometimes aggravating process for applicants."

Then there's the money. New passports (which last 10 years for an adult) carry a $65 fee; renewals, $55; new passports for minors, $40. Amendments (to accommodate marriage-related name changes, for instance) and additions of extra pages are free. But all those prices rise $30 if you need to make an expedited request.

To get expedited status, a traveler must display an itinerary or plane tickets showing travel dates within a few weeks. The passport agency then aims for a turnaround time of three business days.

Private visa agencies, which handle passport and visa applications for paying clients and found themselves between a rock and a hard place during the winter shutdown, say their end of the trade seems to have largely returned to business as usual, at least on the West Coast. At Los Angeles-based Visas International, founder Robert Stricklin says the flow of applications has been relatively smooth, leaving him more time to monitor developments in international visa requirements.

For further answers to passport-related questions, travelers can call the recorded message at the Los Angeles Regional Passport Agency at (310) 235-7070. There's also a toll-free Federal Information Center line at (800) 688-9889, which includes passport information, along with recorded messages on veterans' benefits, federal jobs, defaulted student loans and other federal subjects. Be warned about the 800 number, however: The State Department is said to be looking into instituting a pay-per-minute 900 number for passport queries.

Travelers with online access can reach the State Department's World Wide Web site at http://travel.state.gov, a source that includes state-by-state listings of all post offices serving as passport application acceptance facilities.

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053; telephone (213) 237-7845.

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