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Processing Your Passport Made Easier

Foreign travel: The L.A. passport agency is instituting new systems for speeding up paperwork. But the best strategy is, don't wait until the last minute.

March 30, 1997|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Maybe getting a new or updated passport isn't the most stimulating aspect of foreign travel, but just try leaving North America without one.

At the Los Angeles passport office, estimates of processing time run from two to three weeks in the slower months of winter. When spring yields to summer, last-minute requests pile up, and officials warn that travelers applying then should be ready for waits of four to six weeks before their papers come in.

The problem, now as ever, is "a lot of people are waiting until the last minute," says Barbara Brophy, passport agency customer service manager.

If travelers procrastinate, they could end up needing to make a special expedited request--which since 1994 has carried an extra $30 fee, and is often accompanied by unproductive pre-travel suspense. The passport agency's Los Angeles headquarters, in the Federal Building at 11000 Wilshire Blvd., gets about 500 expedite requests daily.

Whether applicants seek expedited service or not, they'll need to provide two new 2-by-2-inch photos of themselves (with the applicant's face against a white or off-white background). To confirm identification, officials generally require a driver's license. To demonstrate citizenship, they generally require a birth certificate, naturalization certificate or previous passport.

In a pair of moves aimed at speeding up service, the agency in April is moving its headquarters from the 13th floor of the Federal Building to a larger space on the first floor, and setting up a reservation system similar to that now used by the state Department of Motor Vehicles. The reservation system, too, is expected to debut in April.

How heavy is the total load of requests? As of February, officials estimated the office had about 12,000 to 14,000 passport applications pending, and the nationwide backlog was estimated at 220,000. (Last spring's backlog figures were as much as 20% larger than usual because of the federal government work stoppage prompted by the budget stalemate between the president and Congress in January 1996.)

Los Angeles has a higher ratio of walk-up to mail-in applications than other regional passport offices, officials say, due in part to this area's high number of recently naturalized citizens who seek passports in person. This often has made for long lines in the lobby of the Wilshire Boulevard office.

Nationwide, the Passport Office, which is a part of the U.S. Department of State's Consular Affairs bureau, handled 5.3 million requests for new and renewed passports in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 1995. The total for the 1996 fiscal year was expected to surpass that, which would make last year the agency's busiest in history.

In Southern California, from Bakersfield and San Luis Obispo south, about 65 post offices serve as passport application acceptance facilities.

Travelers can find the acceptance facility nearest to them by asking at their local post offices, or by calling the National Passport Information Center at (900) 225-5674. Cost of calls to the information center is 35 cents per minute, and the recorded-information system operates around the clock, with operators available 5 a.m.-5 p.m. Pacific time on weekdays. The same office can be reached by calling (888) 362-8668, which will carry a $4.95 flat fee that can be paid via credit card number.

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

In past peak seasons, Los Angeles Passport Agency Regional Director Timothy Wiesnet has said, the Los Angeles office alone has issued 2,000 to 2,400 passports daily, with 700 applicants waiting in the lobby. "So if you wait until the last minute," he notes, "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.

Travelers with online access can reach the Department of State'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. If you can reach the site, passport officials say, you should be able to download blank passport forms to your home computer, eliminating the need to collect forms from a passport application facility.

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips.

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