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On the Spot: Getting a passport

The State Department is expecting about 13 million applications this year. If you're planning to travel abroad this summer, apply now.

April 22, 2012
(PhotoDisc )

Question: I just renewed my passport. Why does the U.S. Department of State send the new passport and the old passport separately? I know the Postal Service needs all the business it can get, but two mailings instead of one seems wasteful.

Daniel Fink

Beverly Hills

Answer: Like Fink, I just got a new passport and was puzzled about why it arrived in one heavy envelope and the documentation I had provided in another. I was smugly certain it had to do with security, and in my smugness, I disregarded the lesson of Ockham's (sometimes spelled Occam's) razor: The simplest solution is usually the correct one.

Here it is: Passports are printed in a different place from where the passport is adjudicated, the examination of documentation. For security reasons the State Department does not provide details of this adjudication process.

But consider, for a moment, what is considered proof of citizenship: The State Department's website says you can use an old, undamaged passport, a certificate of citizenship, a certified birth certificate, a consular report of birth abroad or certification of birth, a naturalization certificate or a certificate of citizenship. Then think of friends, family and others who don't have a U.S. birth certificate. My friend Vic, for instance, was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II, and my friend Raoul was born in Asia and became a U.S. citizen. Adjudicators must know when to become suspicious of documents of any stripe, never mind a document issued in the chaos of post-war Europe.

Then imagine 1,100 or so Passport Services workers evaluating this information 12.6 million times. That's the number of passports and passport cards issued in 2011. The number of documents has increased dramatically since new requirements for passports (or cards) went into effect with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (partly implemented in January 2007).

That law mandated passports (or, in some cases, other kinds of enhanced documentation) for travel to Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean, where Americans previously could get in or out just by showing something as common as a U.S. driver's license. The new rule (and, perhaps, a booming economy) resulted in 18.3 million passport applications in 2007, and the State Department struggled to keep up.

The State Department is expecting about 13 million applications this year, about a third of which are received in the summer. If you're planning to travel, now is the time to put in that application. See www for regulations that pertain to your situation. (Besides the ones mentioned above, there are special rules for children's applications, especially children of divorced parents.) Unlike Ockham's razor, some of the solutions are not simple, so stay sharp, take a deep breath and begin the journey to your journey by packing an extra dose of patience.

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