Sorry About Your Passport, America

Does this RFID chip make my ass look fat? Image via.

Leaving the country is going to take a lot longer than you thought.

When it was finally my friend Molly’s turn to step up to the bulletproof glass window at the San Francisco US Passport Agency to get her passport, she was sunburned, frightened, hungry and nearly hysterical. The girl behind the glass looked, to Molly, to be about nineteen years old and in a similar mental and emotional state. Molly apologized before beginning, saying, “I just want you to know I’m really frustrated with my government right now. I’m not mad at you.” The passport office girl blurted out, “I’m not even supposed to be doing this job. I don’t belong here, and I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m a temp. I really understand why they have bulletproof glass here.” The girl paused to add, “I hate it here.”

While AP reports from July 23 state that Assistant Secretary of State Maura Harty, who is in charge of passports for U.S. citizens, has accepted “full blame” for the delays in US citizens getting their passports, it does little to ease the situation. The delays are due almost exclusively to the The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), mandated by Congress in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. WHTI requirements for air travel took effect on January 23, 2007. Requiring citizens to now need passports to travel to places like Mexico and the addition of RFID chips to US passports in so-called efforts to thwart terrorists — along with budget problems, and a passport redesign — has turned a routine six-week application process into a Kafka-esque nightmare for hundreds of thousands of citizens. And, a boon for price-gouging passport fulfillment sites.

Molly (who requested a pseudonym for this piece) purchased a ticket to Europe with two other artists in hopes of catching the ten-year occurrence of the Venice Biennale and Germany’s Documenta happening in the same summer. Only after, did she realize that because her passport expired within six months, she was required by law to have a new passport for travel. Thus began her descent into present-day US passport hell.


Her travel date was July 24, and since it typically takes six weeks to obtain a US passport, Molly decided to expedite her application. On June 18, she learned from the US Post Office that she had two options for expedition: to wait until their first available appointment on June 27, or wait until 14 days before her flight, and call the automated emergency passport system.

Molly went back to her NOPA flat and looked for online, non-US government expedition options. One highly visible online passport rush service, Molly read, would hand-deliver her passport in three weeks for $95, plus the $150 government fees. She called, only to discover that they were in fact charging $300 (not $95), with no guarantee, at all.

Since her travel date was just five weeks away, Molly took it to the judge. Or rather, she went to San Francisco City Hall on June 19, and handed the City Hall Office of the Treasurer her application, passport photos, birth certificate, and $150 (passport fee, clerk fee, expedition fee). The clerk told Molly her passport was guaranteed to arrive at her house on the 10th or 11th of July, and no later than the 12th.

By July 14th, Molly was in a total state of panic. Her trip was ten days away, and she had no passport, no birth certificate — and possibly no recourse. She went online to the US Department of State Passport page, and followed directions to send an email query. Still concerned, she called the phone number on her passport application receipt (also found on the website: National Passport Information Center).

After an hour and a half on hold (and having the system disconnect her once “due to high call volume”), Molly finally reached a human voice. The woman Molly talked to apologized, said that they’d “put a rush on it”, that Molly would get her passport “by the 20th”. Feeling unsure even after they’d said goodbye, Molly decided to call the passport office back the next day to follow up.

Once again, after being booted from the automated system’s “high call volume” disconnection function, Molly stayed on the line and was connected to another agent. This time, a man who told Molly he was looking at her account and that in fact, no rush had been put on her order. He chastised Molly for calling back “too soon”, and that if she asked for too many rushes, “they’ll ignore it.” He told her to call back in 72 hours and she countered, “But it’ll be the weekend. Your offices are closed.”

The next day was Friday, and her flight left the following Wednesday. She called the passport hotline, again. She got hung up on, again. An hour and a half later, she connected with a representative in New Jersey who explained to Molly that he could see she’d called twice, but there was no rush put on her passport. He explained that the two people she’d spoken with before were at the temporary passport agency, so didn’t actually have the ability to put rushes on passports.

This was not the first time in her life that Molly, a part-time nanny, needed to summon her nanny superpowers of patience for autistic children. She politely asked if her passport could be sent to her local San Francisco passport offices, and she could just go pick it up. He explained that he thought her passport “might be in New Hampshire”, though he thought it was unlikely to arrive on time. But, pretending he hadn’t heard her previous request to send it to San Francisco, offered, “Maybe the best thing is to put it at will call in San Francisco.” He told her to make an appointment for pickup, and hung up.

Molly spent the entire weekend — when not at her other full-time Ferry Building Marketplace job — trying to make an appointment using the emergency hotline. Every time she called on Saturday, she was disconnected due to “high call volume”. She finally got past the high volume disconnection recording and made it into the automated waiting system after 9pm on Sunday night — which repeats appointment options, telling her the next open appointment in San Francisco was August 6. Following the recorded suggestion, she kept trying over the next few hours to see if there was a cancellation — only to watch the date slip further into the future.

Furious after over six hours on the phone, Molly did that thing we all joke about in times of bureaucratic disasters — she wrote an angry letter to her elected representative. She politely, furiously, pecked out an email to Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi about how the situation was “untenable”, and she did not “feel represented”.

Monday afternoon, she felt like email just wasn’t satisfying, so she went back to Pelosi’s website, and called her.

Molly got the desk secretary, who transferred her to Pelosi Senior Staff Member Harriet Ishimoto. Ishimoto apologized, and with Molly on the phone, emailed her a form to fill out for emergency appointment processing, and personally called the San Francisco office for Molly’s appointment. She told Molly she believed the passport application had been lost, and that Molly should get new photos and bring everything to the SF office, and get there at least an hour before it opened to get in line.


If you’ve driven by Hawthorne and Folsom, you’ve seen those lines. Molly got there at 9:30 am Tuesday (a little late). Her flight was to leave the next day. The line was huge; V-shaped, on two sides of the block. But that was not the only line. She got in the first line, and met a man in front of her who was going to France the next day, and had applied for his US passport fourteen weeks ago. He told her she might be in the wrong line; Molly went to the nearest security guard and said, I have a note from Nacy Pelosi — he rudely told her to get in the other line, the “emergency line”. The emergency line looked to be around 150 people long, 80-100 feet down the block, and 2-3 people deep.

In what Molly called the “skip the line, line”, groups were being called into the building ten people at a time. There was no shade, no food, and importantly, no bathrooms. Ahead of Molly in the line, a young woman waiting to go to China because her father had died — she left to find a restroom, and returned to discover her group had been let in and security guards would not let her re-join the group. She went back to wait another three hours in line; where all told, people waited four hours in the sun. Elderly, disabled, everyone on the sidewalk.

As it turned out, Molly was waiting in a line — to wait in line. Once inside, through security, she could smell the bathrooms and see that there were not enough chairs. She was directed to another line to wait for a number; then another line to wait for her number to be called. In this line, she met a sweet Hungarian couple and their five-month-old son, who they wanted to take to Hungary to meet his grandparents for the first time. They had applied for his passport when he was a month old; the passport office had lost the baby’s original birth certificate and application. It was quite difficult, they explained, because for a baby both parents need to be present for application, and they lost work every time they came to wait in line.

Watching the “estimated wait” sign say “28 minutes” for over an hour, Molly decided to take a photo. Only to have a security guard walk over, stand by her, and look at her with his hand on his gun.

As Molly stood there incredulously, the lights flickered — and then went out.

The entire room wailed a pained, collective, “Noooooo…..”

The power went back on. Without the PA system. The computers all had to be rebooted.

It was than that Molly called me. Laughing hysterically. “We’re all kind of laughing now. But we’re excited to be inside! Stockholm syndrome!”

The power went out again, and again. Computers rebooted again, and again. The third time, the PA system played an automated recording telling everyone not to panic.

Behind the bulletproof glass, no one could hear the clerks call numbers. Their mouths would move, some tried to call numbers through the little slot at the bottom. Still, the clerks would only call the numbers three times before moving to the next. Some resorted to writing the numbers on Post-Its and pressing the paper to the glass. In the front, a disabled woman’s young son took up a job; when a number came up, he’d yell it, and the window number to the room. People smiled, complimented. Molly said the mother gave the boy “thumbs-up” every time.

When Molly’s number was called the second time at 4pm (the first time is for “processing”), she met the girl who hated her unwanted temp job. After hearing about the girl’s position at the passport office, the girl told Molly they’d found her passport, vaguely, “on a desk”. And that they’d try and make her passport today, but there were no guarantees. At that, it was time for their dinner break, and the office was closing, but Molly was given a note for return at six. The girl told her, to come back with all her paperwork, but to be prompt at six or she wouldn’t get back in.

The guards were intimidating; Molly spent the afternoon watching them tell people waiting in line to “watch their mouths” and “not get smart”. But on her way out, Molly checked with a security guard about returning, who told her to be back “no later than 5:15” to get in line to enter the building. She had 30 minutes. Walking to get food and water, Molly took a new friend — a Russian woman, who told her, “Today is my first day as citizen. I have to go back home for family emergency, and normally I would use Russian passport, but today I am an American.”

Upon return at 5:15, she was about 50th in line to re-enter the office — only to be let in an hour later. By 6:35, passport in hand, Molly called me for a ride home. Instead of gas, I’m demanding a postcard.

And the new passports? Let’s just say that even after a glass of wine each, we really think someone should fire that designer. Oh — and I might just wait until Molly gets back to tell her there is no passport office in New Hampshire.

26 Comments so far

  1. Jason D- (unregistered) on July 27th, 2007 @ 7:57 am

    Oh dear. I’m leaving the country in January so I guess I better get on the ball!

  2. greg Dewar (unregistered) on July 27th, 2007 @ 11:09 am

    I am so glad I got my passport a year ago when I had time…this sounds like a nightmare of Brazil-the-movie proportions.

    Score another one for the Bush administration and Congress..passing laws without the means to actually make them work. Thanks GW! I feel safer now!

  3. M. (unregistered) on July 27th, 2007 @ 1:43 pm

    There is a passport center, the National Passport Center, in New Hampshire. Most passports applied for overseas, as well as many applied for through the mail in the States, are processed there.

  4. shaun (unregistered) on July 27th, 2007 @ 1:44 pm

    There is no passport office in New Hampshire – but there is a passport processing center. It’s where they send all the non-rush jobs to get made.

  5. Poormojo (unregistered) on July 27th, 2007 @ 2:22 pm

    Oh god this is a dreadful story. My passport expires in 2010. Maybe I should get in line now?

  6. jim jimson (unregistered) on July 27th, 2007 @ 2:30 pm

    The third-worldafacation of the USA continues.

  7. Dan Berkes (unregistered) on July 27th, 2007 @ 4:07 pm

    That was infuriating and depressing to read, but I’m glad it had a happy ending. Hope the wine was good.

    My passport expires in 2011, so I should probably get in line behind Poormojo.

  8. Timon (unregistered) on July 27th, 2007 @ 4:27 pm

    I realized that my passport had expired 4 days before a trip and headed to that very office on Hawthorne — I ended up picking up a new passport about 24 hours after having new pictures taken at Kinko’s. (I’m typing this from Mexico City.) Basically I told the guard I had an appointment but that there was some mixup with the printout and I was supposed to be there at the hour I happened to be there. I waited about two hours after getting a number from the first window they sent me to, during which time I filled out the renewal forms.

    ANYONE WORRIED ABOUT THE NEW NORTH AMERICAN RESTRICTIONS SHOULD BE AWARE THAT THERE IS AN EXEMPTION UNTIL SEPTEMBER OR OCTOBER, WHEREBY YOU CAN GET SUFFICIENT TRAVEL DOCS BY CONFIRMING THAT YOU ARE PROCESSING AN APPLICATION. I was going to rely on that exemption (which I learned about on my blackberry while waiting) but the woman at the counter said that I could come back the next day for the passport itself. I think I paid $127 plus some expediting fee. I was actually completely shocked at how fast it all went and how bizarre and circus-like the atmosphere was. I can confirm that the NEW PASSPORTS ARE HIDEOUS LOOKING AND EMBARRASSINGLY CORNY, btw, with stupid cartoons on every page and pseudo-inspirational realistic nationalist themes.

  9. Jason (unregistered) on July 27th, 2007 @ 4:38 pm

    Luckily, renewing an existing passport is much faster. My wife mailed in the application earlier this month and received the new passport in the mail just 2 weeks later! So the delays are only for NEW passports…

  10. Michael (unregistered) on July 27th, 2007 @ 5:57 pm

    Looks like it’s time for me to apply for that dual Euro citizenship.

  11. Steve (unregistered) on July 27th, 2007 @ 7:26 pm

    @Jason–“So the delays are only for NEW passports…” is unfortunately not the case; your wife was lucky! A co-worker who originally filed an application for renewal of his son’s passport several months ago, theoretically in plenty of time for his trip to Germany next week, ended up spending the morning today at the above-described office (he had almost the identical experience described above with the appointment reservation system, but having been forewarned about the crowds at the SF passport office he arrived at 6:30 AM, when there were “only” about 60 people waiting in line ahead of him, and finished negotiating the various lines and windows by noon). He got the same story, that they had apparently lost the previous application and had to start over… He was told to show up at 6 tonight to claim his son’s passport; hopefully he’ll get it!

    Another coworker’s parents submitted applications together to renew their passports for an upcoming trip to China; one passport showed up several weeks ago but the other never did, so they’re facing this same scenario next week. Apparently none of these renewal applications was expedited, but were all submitted far ahead of the deadline!

  12. Sarcastic Bastard (unregistered) on July 27th, 2007 @ 8:07 pm

    It will be so sweet when these same people run health care! Thanks Michael Moore!

  13. danielle (unregistered) on July 27th, 2007 @ 8:56 pm

    Heh. I’m currently getting my passport renewed. I sent mine in on the 30th of April, so I’ve over the 12 weeks MAX they’ve been quoting. I called the number off of the website and they said that they’d move it up in the queue and if it wasn’t to me by friday (today) that I should call again. Still not here, so I called again and found out that my passport is only 60% done and eventhough it won’t take long to finish, they’ve put it aside and who knows when they’ll get back to it. I’m leaving for Japan in October, but I still need to apply for the Visa, which I am told take two months for processing and THEN you get to take the paperwork to your local consulate office to have it take another two weeks to actually be given your Visa. The lady I spoke to tonight said that she was putting down that I needed the passport no later than the 1st, but she doubted it would be done by then. Can I just say that I am rather nervous right now? And not a little pissy? *sweats*

    I guess I should’ve scraped the money together to expedite it, even though I absolutely did not have the money, and I sent it in three months before I needed it. *is not amused*

    I’m trying to keep a pleasant face on things and be understanding, but wow, it’s rather trying. *crosses fingers for us all*

    Too bad the having proof your passport is in processing for flights wasn’t also applicable for countries other than Mexico, Canada and the Carribean.

  14. Ivana (unregistered) on July 28th, 2007 @ 7:39 am

    Sixteen days (on a Saturday) before our trip I realized my daughter’s passport had expired almost two months earlier. Being under 14 years of age, I needed my husband’s consent to apply for a renewal. Furthermore, it was necessary to go the the Passport Agency in person. My husband was in Europe already–but he was able to send the consent through a consulate. I lost valuable time waiting for the weekend to pass. THEY WORK ON WEEKENDS, TOO. The automated system works ALL THE TIME. On Monday I stayed up from 2am until 4:30am. After a 50. min. wait my appointment was on the day of our departure. I had two friends take care of my luggage and our dog, ready to go to the airport directly. The appointment was a vague time because the line had hunred people…After an hour, a lady with a hat, who looked to me like a fairy godmother, asked who was leaving THAT day. After that, my tortures were over. It took another three hours to get the actual passport…but it was a success. I must say that the passport people were courteous and prompt…and organized. We were also waiting inside. We had brought water with us, so that part was taken care of.

  15. maria (unregistered) on July 28th, 2007 @ 9:54 am

    I mailed in a renewal application on March 15, and I have yet to receive my passport, over 4 months later!!! I called several times, the usual 1 hour phone wait and I was told no passport until I had confirmed tickets to fly out of the country. I couldn’t believe it. The only thing I have is a number confirming that I applied. This is America Today!!!

  16. Heather Marie (unregistered) on July 28th, 2007 @ 10:46 am

    You know who I feel sympathy for? The security guards in the passport line Molly was waiting in, who were castigated for being “intimidating” and surly. They’re the ones who have to stand on that line for 8 hours a day in the sun, dealing with all of the grumpy folks waiting for passports, and in the end they probably don’t draw a large enough paycheck to even consider taking a trip out of the country anyways. And, after all, Molly did in fact get her passport in time for her trip. System sucks, but it worked. Maybe she should take a government job when she gets back, so that she can help change that system.

  17. Richard (unregistered) on July 28th, 2007 @ 12:48 pm

    I tend to think of this passport problem as ‘old news’ because information on how to deal with this problem has been readily available on the web for some time, for instance here:

    WV Tips for US Passport Seekers: Navigating the Passport Maze

    And those RFID chips,

    The ID Chip You Don’t Want in Your Passport
    RFID stands for “radio-frequency identification.”

    RFID passport logo

    The upshot of this is a system which is so broken as to require byzantine behavioral changes on our parts as ‘citizens’ so that we are all more secure. When in fact after standing in line, I think you can understand that this whole effort has been to impart a mechanism to make obtaining passports less secure. And devalues the reason for them in the first place.

  18. PHK (unregistered) on July 28th, 2007 @ 3:12 pm

    Richard: Thanks for linking to WhirledView.

    You’re right: this problem is “old news” and we’ve been writing about it since early February and were mentioned in an front page article in the San Francisco Chronicle as a resource.

    Since then, I wrote a tips page (which is what you linked to) which answers a lot of questions to help (as much as possible) people navigate the broken, Byzantine process. We are always interested in hearing from people what has worked for them – and what hasn’t (also what the lines are like at the different Agencies). We’ve found that paying the $60 expedite fee plus fedex shipping does make a major difference in time but that many people did not have gotten their passports just in the nick of time through Congressional help.

  19. Lauren (unregistered) on July 28th, 2007 @ 7:35 pm

    I had a similar experience in May, and only got back into the country from Canada flying because I brought every single piece of proof that I was a US citizen with me. And if anyone promises that you can make an emergency appointment 3 days before you leave, they’re definitely with the temp agency. The call system at least needs to be changed so it doesn’t automatically hang up on you (which happens more than you get a representative). And not every representative actually knows the rules at the time. Apparently it’s not important that everyone has the same information. I feel less safe knowing that our government is not able to handle a situation like this. This was enacted in 2004, you’d think 3 years would have been enough time to prepare for the surge they knew was coming. Thank God for our troops, or else I wouldn’t feel protected at all. And the only advice I can give is that I got from my husband’s uncle who worked for customs. A US citizen by law cannot be denied entry into our country, even without a passport. It just may take a little longer to get through customs. I wouldn’t use that as your plan for getting back in, but it’s a nice fallback. Worked for me, especially since the system didn’t. (Oh and mine was a renewal, took only 14 weeks, but still longer than the 10 they promised on the website at the time I submitted my renewal.)

  20. vivian (unregistered) on July 29th, 2007 @ 1:27 am

    i applied for a renewal of my passport since it would have expired this month. i applied on the last week of march, but i didn’t actually receive it until a couple weeks ago – almost four months.

    i did all the things the site said – call, e-mail, request on passport status. my mom eventually went to the post office to ask about it and found out that since i didn’t put down a date on when i’d need it by, it was set aside for “more important” applications. and apparently, it also depends on where it’s processed – which made a difference as my brother waited about half the time for his passport to arrive.

  21. haryone (unregistered) on July 29th, 2007 @ 2:29 pm

    Things do change. In 1963 on a Monday afternoon I was told that I had a 3:00pm Friday flight to Japan. My passport had expired and I needed Japanese Visa in the new passport. My father had just retired from the State Department and knew what to do. I phoned the air line and said “you have a problem”.
    They told me to send the paperwork Special Deliver to the passport office in Chicago to be expedited and that they would get it to the Japanese Consol in Chicago. Thursday my wife phoned and said that the passport was at home – without a visa. I phoned the airline again. They said to Special Delivery the passport to the Consol. Friday day the Consol handed the passport to a cab driver who handed it to an airline supervisor on the curb at O’Hare. She handed it to the pilot of the next plane out. When I walked up to the counter a pilot walked up behind the agent and called my name, passport in hand. Oh, and Special Delivery worked.

  22. violet (unregistered) on July 29th, 2007 @ 2:59 pm

    wow! I really want to thank everyone for the comments, stories and suggestions. hopefully this post can serve as a resource for people navigating the hell of getting a passport, or at least make folks feel less alone and confused. I really appreciate people posting non-government citizen resource links — it’s not like .gov is going to link to WV’s tips anytime soon, though they *should* (and I think most people going through this are like my friend Molly, who is only recently becoming web-savvy).

  23. cd (unregistered) on July 30th, 2007 @ 8:32 am

    The significant delays in passport processing have been ALL OVER THE NEWS since at least April. The rules for needing a passport for travel to Mexico and Canada were first postponed through the end of the summer and now, I believe, won’t be enforced until sometime NEXT summer.

    Never underestimate, however, the power of angry, affluent/middle-class travelers to spur policy change almost immediately, however. So many people with cruise tickets, etc.

    Try getting them to speed up or suspend rules on other things (like fiance visa processing). Not enough critical mass to fix those processing times.

    At any rate, yeah, if you need a passport soon, get a move on. You still might not make it.

    But it WAS on the news quite a bit.

  24. cd (unregistered) on July 30th, 2007 @ 8:38 am

    p.s. last I heard they also are no longer promising any passports within a particular timeline – and they won’t even take fees for expediting anymore, because they can’t expedite anything anyway.

    Lastly, for at least a bit longer, passports aren’t required at all for land or sea crossings.

  25. redseca2 (unregistered) on July 30th, 2007 @ 12:08 pm

    I would never go to SF City Hall for my passport! Would you go to the passport office to pay your SF county property taxes!

    In February 2006, long before the current passport crisis, a friend did just that to get his first passport to travel with me to Norway in May, almost 16 weeks away. The clerk at SF City Hall gave him such spectacularly incorrect information, (he told him not to include his birth certificate, all they “needed to see” was his Receipt for the birth certificate; he told him “expediting is a waste of money”; he entered the zip code for City Hall, not for my friends home on the form!!!!) so my friend didn’t get his passport until 48 hours before we left.

  26. Nancy (unregistered) on August 1st, 2007 @ 11:37 pm

    “delays just for new passports”? WRONG.
    I had to renew/replace my old passport, with extra emphasis on getting my new (old) name re-established after a divorce, and it took OVER 90 DAYS. WITH my existing passport submitted, and all notorized documents in place (birth certificate, marriage license AND freakin’ notorized divorce decree!)


    (public service announcement OUT)

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