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My passport and I have been through a lot together. We’ve crossed borders, applied for visas, been traumatically temporarily separated and even most recently been detained at US Immigration together. We often get a little defensive when snooty foreigners point out that only 20% of Americans have a bond like ours (AKA own a passport). First of all, that number is no longer accurate. These days, it’s up to about 30%. Granted, that’s still pretty low compared to Canada’s 60% and the United Kingdom’s 75%. But well, there are a litany of reasons why, and names them best:

“…the United States’ own rich cultural and geographic diversity, an American skepticism and/or ignorance about international destinations, a work culture that prevents Americans from taking long vacations abroad and the prohibitive cost and logistics of going overseas.”

And you know what? We’re working on rectifying that statistic. As a matter of fact, The US Department of State has introduced on March 10th as a way to raise awareness of the US Passport and as a bonus, open their agency doors to applicants on a Saturday. As part of the initiative, the Department invited certain bloggers, myself included, to tour their agencies and learn more about the passport application process. As a lover of anything “behind the scenes” (Vh1’s Behind The Music, anyone?) I jumped at the chance. I wrote about much of the logistics behind Passport Day for the , so be sure to check that out once you finish this post!

There are 25 Regional Passport Agencies around the country. The New York City office is the busiest of them all, processing 1,300-1,500 passports per week. In the busiest months of June and July, (or any time school is out!) those numbers can swell to 2,000 per week. On the first floor of the agency, after going through a security check, visitors confirm their online appointments. Those with appointments and the correct amount of paperwork are allowed upstairs into the processing room.

In the processing room everyone is given a number. Then they wait. This might look like a scene at any government purgatory waiting room, such as the DMV, but as Agency director Michael Hoffman said to me, working for the Passport Office at the Department of State is a dream job because it means being part of the only government agency that gets to say yes rather than no 99% of the time.

They know that the people at their counters are frequently applying for emergency passports, often because there has been a death or an emergency abroad- and they try to exercise compassion.

At this point I got to step behind the scenes, and see the process of the actual books being made. Maybe because I went to art school, maybe because I used to work as a production assistant at a stationary studio (passports are just some really fancy paper, right?) or maybe its simply because I’m a keen world traveler, but I was really looking forward to seeing this part of the process. It turns out only the very last step of the passport-making procedure takes place in New York. Blank books are made in DC and sent to the office, where they go from random blank book of paper to personal passport in less than one minute! I wasn’t able to see much of this progression, let alone photograph it. But involved lots of machines like the one below.

And at the end, somewhere in the city a US Citizen becomes a proud owner of this powerful little book.

I love my passport. It’s one of my most treasured possessions. As it grows thicker with visas and more saturated with stamps, I hold it close as my greatest souvenir and my most precious memento. If only my passport photo weren’t so heinous.

Are you ready to apply for a US Passport? Read about Passport Day and how to apply, and then visit for more info! Happy Passport Day!

  • Olivia
    March 9 2012

    Love this post Meihoukai… I never really thought about how many places and people’s hands my little blue and gold book went through before it became mine!

    • Meihoukai
      March 10 2012

      I know! It’s really interesting to learn about the process, I think. It is the world’s most accurate identification though, so I guess it’s going to be tough to get!

  • wes
    March 9 2012

    Like this one. Your eye for finding connections and good news in what seems like mundane scenarios is quite something. I thought of a guest post: The time I lost my passport in Beirut.

    • Meihoukai
      March 10 2012

      Yes! I remember you telling me that story! Write it! Write it! And get me some photos 🙂

  • Dana de Brito
    March 9 2012

    Interesting post! I’m sure the process is quite similar for Canadians too – thanks for the info! Ps. Everyone has crappy passport pics… ha ha.

    • Meihoukai
      March 10 2012

      Whyyyy does it have to be that way?! I love flipping through the pages of my passport with stamps and visas, and then I get to the photo page and just cringe!

  • Diane C
    March 9 2012

    Meihoukai–This is a really cool post. Love the photos–great story telling.

  • Lis
    March 19 2012

    You have to go in person to get a passport? That’s not an option anymore in NZ – you download the application form – send it in with payment – and they return the passport by registered mail in a couple of weeks. I believe if its really urgent – you can drop it off – but you certainly don’t have to sit around waiting for the counter to free up anymore!

    • Meihoukai
      March 19 2012

      You only have to go in person, actually, you only can go in person, if you are applying for an emergency passport or you are traveling within two weeks. Otherwise you apply by mail or at a Passport Acceptance Facility, aka a post office.

  • Maddy
    June 10 2014

    This is a hilarious post to read, as I just got my first adult passport (for shame!) about two months ago – and the app process was a beast, involving many hours waiting in lines, days taken off work to wait in lines, pictures at a separate location when the USPS camera broke, payments in certain formats only, finding my old passport turn in when a Certified Abstract of Birth wasn’t sufficient ID, etc etc. I felt so lucky (and privileged, honestly) that I was ABLE to take a day off work to handle it – I can’t imagine how people who HAVE to leave the country but also who HAVE to work fulltime manage it! Good to know they’re trying to remedy this system! 🙂