Here’s the real reason so few Americans have passports


Less than one-third of Americans have passports, compared with more than half of Canadians. And if you’ve ever wondered why, then it’s probably been a few years since you tried to get one.

I applied for three passports yesterday, and I’m here to tell you the real reason why most Americans lack a passport.

It’s a major hassle.

I’m traveling to Guadalajara, Mexico, to speak at the SATW meeting in October, and while making my reservations, I discovered that my passport expires in November. So I had one renewal.

Also, my whole family has been invited to an overseas destination (can’t say where yet because the details are still not nailed down) so our youngest, Erysse, had to apply for a passport, and our oldest, Aren, needed to renew his.

Now, you’d think there would be a seamless way to handle all of these items — two renewals and an application — online. Not so.

I found the State Department Web site to be confusing, at least when it comes to renewals. I wanted to apply for my renewals in person, along with the other application, but that didn’t appear to be an option. Mine had to be done by mail, apparently.

Next, we tried to download the new passport application so we could fill it out before getting to the post office. About halfway through the process, I discovered I’d actually printed the wrong document. Unsure of which form to use, I decided to wait until getting to the post office before trying again.

The folks at the passport office were very helpful. They found the right forms and helped me fill them out correctly. But still, with two kids running around — one of whom refused to have her picture taken — the situation was chaotic, at best. While I handled the forms, Mom was halfway across the room, being administered some kind of oath.

For a passport? Puh-lease!

And then there was the expense, which was probably the worst part of it. All the fees and photos came to $321. Oh, and let’s not forget the hour it took to get through the passport ordeal. That’s gotta be worth something.

The State Department can make this process far easier. For example:

• Why not make passports more automatic? You’ve heard of motor-voter acts, which allow you to register to vote when you apply for a driver’s license? Why not have a motor-passport initiative, which lets people receive a permit to leave the country when they get a license?

• Cut the red tape. I can’t think of any good reason for the oaths and in-person signatures. Seriously, getting a passport should be as easy as registering to vote or picking up a birth certificate. A passport, in essence, is a government vouching for your citizenship and saying it’s OK to travel.

• Go online. In an age when electronic signatures and digital photos are commonly used in legal documents, why can’t the State Department figure out a way to accept our applications paperlessly? It would save time, money and it’s good for the environment.

I wish I could say I’ll find out how far we’ve come in another ten years. But my son’s passport expires in 2010, so I’m sure I’ll revisit this subject soon.

(Photo: clappstar/Flickr Creative Commons)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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    There are so many assumptions and misconceptions about Americans. The passport ownership rate varies from state to state but the overall numbers make us look, indeed, provincial. The good news is that the US passport lasts 10 years. The bad news is that it is a rather antiquated procedural system and the costs have gone up considerably. It used to be that you could just stop in at any US Embassy abroad, you were both graciously welcomed and given 24 more pages, A-Z, for free. I just read in the International Herald Tribune that Americans are ‘losing their edge’ in terms of being globally competitive. Perhaps part of the reason is that they need to go out into the world, learn about doing business abroad, the ‘ways’ in which things happen are distinctly different that in the US and in order to capture those emerging markets is to get out there, hit the ground running and have a look at those cultures with open eyes and try to understand the way they operate. Let’s become the entrepreneurs that we have always been and venture out into new territories! Americans, go get passports and have a look around.
    Best Wishes,
    Alex Ivory


    My son renewed his passport by going to the post office. Application, photos and money. Took all of 15 minutes. 6 weeks later he had his passport. Where’s the problem? Some people wait until the last minute and are pressed by time this way it may feel like a hassle. Get it done way ahead of time. I’am going overseas next year and soon i’am renewing my passport so when it’s time to go, it’s time to go.