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Need a passport fast? Be prepared to pay

March 18, 2007|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

MARGARITA in hand, you are lounging on a stretch of sand near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Not a care in the world.

Except this: That's your dream, but the reality is that you don't have a current passport, and you're due to fly to Mexico in a month. Uh-oh. You'd better dump the drink and grab your checkbook -- and the Alka-Seltzer.

Trying to get a passport on short notice can be a nail-biter that costs hundreds of dollars -- if you can get one at all.

Swamped by applications, caused partly by new rules that require passports for air travel to Mexico, the Caribbean and Canada, the State Department is taking longer to issue the documents.

Getting a passport can take 10 weeks instead of the usual six from the time you apply, officials said earlier this month. Even if you pay extra for expedited service, you may wait four weeks or more instead of the usual two.

And that's just the official estimate. Any number of problems -- errors on the application form, computer breakdowns, weather that hinders mail delivery or staffing problems at processing centers -- can stretch the wait, possibly forcing you to cancel your trip. Even doing that costs money: Airlines may charge you $100 or more to change your ticket.

For all these reasons, you should apply for or renew your passport at least three months before you go abroad, several experts told me. Better yet, start the process now, even if you have no trips planned. After all, a passport is good for 10 years, and who knows when you might travel?

If you have less than six months left on your passport, renew it before your next trip, or you may be refused a visa or even turned back at the border by some countries, which worry that you'll overstay your welcome.

If you delay, costs can snowball. Here's the tally:

* $97: total government fees for a new passport for a traveler 16 or older; renewals are $67.

* $60: fee for expedited service, paid to U.S. passport agency.

* $45.78: estimated total fees for FedEx Standard Overnight two-way shipping between Los Angeles and the National Passport Processing Center in New Castle, Del. (Fees vary by company and date.) This shipping method is recommended for expedited service.

So far, we're up to $202.78 for a new passport and $172.78 for a renewal. But what if you need your passport sooner than three or four weeks?

You have two options. The State Department says that if you are scheduled to leave the country within 14 days, you can call its toll-free line, (877) 487-2778, to make an appointment at one of its Regional Passport Agencies, including one in Los Angeles. Making an appointment is free.

But if you don't live near a regional office or can't get an appointment soon enough, your other option is to engage a private expediting company. Such companies can help you get a passport more quickly.

Their secret? Each passport agency allows expediters to file a certain number of rush applications per day on behalf of their clients. These applications may be processed in as little as a day, depending on the agency.

Expediting companies extract the final cha-ching from passport procrastinators.

* $99 and up: typical service fees by expediters. These vary by company and by how quickly you need your passport.

Yikes! By delaying, your $97 passport now costs more than $300.

Whether to work with an expediter is a judgment call. Most big ones work mainly on contract with businesses and nonprofits, so as an individual client, you fall last on their list.

"We always take care of our top customers first," said Steven Diehl, vice president of business development for CIBT, one of the largest expediters, based in McLean, Va. "Then we take care of our retail clients, if we have any spaces left."

Your $99 doesn't ensure that you'll get your passport on time, either.

"We give a guarantee on our services, but we can't guarantee the government's service," said Jan Dvorak, president of another big expediter, Travisa visa service, in Washington, D.C. He said his percentage rate of success in meeting deadlines was "in the high 90s."

When shopping for an expediter, ask how long it's been in business and whether it belongs to the National Assn. of Passport & Visa Services, www.napvs.org, a nonprofit trade group in Silver Spring, Md. (Not all companies belong, but many bigger ones do.)

jane.engle@latimes.com

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