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Passports: The Rules Are Changing
by Rudy Maxa for Marketplace

Whether you've never applied for a passport or whether you've had one for years, the rules are changing. And, if you're planning any travel abroad, The Savvy Traveler's Rudy Maxa says there are a few important things you should know.

Once upon a time, you could walk into a passport office in a major American city, fill out a form, give a clerk a couple of pictures, and a couple of weeks later you'd have a passport. If you lost it while traveling abroad, a U.S. embassy could fix you up with another one in an hour, if the line wasn't too long. And, if you needed to renew your son or daughter's passport, you just sent in an old one.

Today, you can't do any of those things. Uncle Sam has taken a tougher stand on passports, issuing new ones that are harder to duplicate, and toughening requirements to obtain them. If you plan on traveling overseas now, there are a few new things to know.

First of all, check the expiration date on your passport if you're traveling abroad soon. Some countries, such as Indonesia, Venezuela and the Netherlands, won't let you in the door if your passport is due to expire within 6 months. However, other countries may not let you enter if your passport isn't at least 6 months old.

Then, there's the issue of getting a new passport, or renewing an old one. I was surprised when a federal agent asked me if I had an appointment when I visited the State Department's passport office in my hometown of Washington, DC. An appointment?

If you don't live near a big city, your local post office should have passport applications. Or, you can download one from the Web. Until recently, a previously valid passport was sufficient to renew one for someone under the age of 14 -- no more. As of earlier this month, both parents or guardians must be present -- or at least one must be present along with a letter of permission from the other parent or guardian -- when a minor applies for a passport or renewal.

The most common passport problem involves travelers who put off getting one until the last minute. The State Department will expedite a passport -- for an additional $75 fee, by the way -- if you can show airline tickets indicating an imminent departure. How fast can you get one? Usually it'll take a couple of weeks on a hurry-up basis, 6 to 10 weeks for a regular application. Keep in mind, an average of 20,000 people a day apply for a passport in the U.S. -- and the average is much higher in the summer.

If you're panicked, there are passport expediters who for a fee will walk your request through speedily, sometimes as quickly as 24 hours. I've post links to several companies below. Plan on paying at least another $100 to hire an expediter.

If you lose your passport abroad, American embassies can no longer issue replacements, but an embassy will provide the necessary documentation to get you back to the States. Always keep a photocopy of the opening two pages of your passport with you, separate from your passport. And, one more thing to know: On August 19th, the regular cost for a new passport increases from $60 to $85. Act now to save $25.

From The Savvy Traveler, I'm Rudy Maxa for Marketplace.

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There are 13 major U.S. cities with passport agencies. For general information on locations and passport requirements, call 900-225-5674 or 888-362-8668. Have a major credit card ready, as this is a private company that, under government contract, charges 35 cents per minute for automated information, $1.05 per minute for operator-assisted information. Operators are available between 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., EST. At no charge, answers to most questions can be found at http://www.travel.state.gov/passport_services.html

Links to U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide: http://www.travel.state.gov/links.html

To download a passport application online, visit: http://www.travel.state.gov/download_applications.html

Passport (and visa) expediters are private companies that "walk" your application through when you're in a hurry.

»Here are three:

Express Visa Service has seven offices nationally. For details, click on http://www.expressvisa.com or call 202-337-2442.

Travisa at http://www.travisa.com, or call 800-222-2589 in Washington, DC; 800-766-0608 in the Midwest; 800-421-5468 on the West Coast.

Instant Passport at http://www.instantpassport.com will answer general questions at 401-331-6236. To order, call 800-284-2564.

You can read - and hear - more from Rudy and company at SavvyTraveler.org!

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