How to Get Your First U.S. Passport in 5 Easy Steps

How to Get Your First U.S. Passport - Pin
Creative Commons My collection of passport stamps” by hjl is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Do you see amazing photos of places you want to go visit, but are discouraged because you don’t have a passport?  You are not alone.  Roughly two-thirds of Americans don’t have passports.  But don’t let the lack of a passport limit your vacation options, or put a damper on your travel dreams.  It is much easier than you think to get a US passport. 

So how do you go about getting that all important book and start collecting stamps and memories?

I went through the process of getting my passport at a time in my life when I wanted to have the freedom of going anywhere I wanted to go.  I can still remember the day I received my passport, and the joy I felt as I was flipping through the empty pages…just thinking about all the places I could go!

Passport Stamps
Stamps in my passport are now memories of places I’ve traveled

It might have been intuition, because a few months later I would meet Liz and start traveling the world together; creating a life full of travel memories.  I could not have had those memories without having that important little blue book.

To help take make it easier for you, we have broken down the process of getting a US Passport into these simple steps.  We can assure you that the process is pain-free, and is much easier than you think.

No excuses now!

Checklist:  What You Need to Get a US Passport

  • Proof of Citizenship
  • Completed DS-11 form
  • 2 Passport Photos
  • Acceptable Photo ID (Valid Driver’s License, Government ID, or Military ID)
  • Money for Fees ($100 if you’r over 16, $85 if your under 16)
  • 2 checks for above fees

Step 1 – Find your proof of Citizenship

If you were born in the United States, then you will need to find your Birth Certificate to show proof of citizenship. Make sure you get an original copy with a seal certified by the city, county or state where you were born. (a photo copy will NOT work)

How do you know if it’s an original, certified copy?

Birth Certificate
Creative Commons Birth Certificate Seal” by Anthony Choy is licensed under CC BY 2.0

A certified birth certificate looks quite official.  It has a registrar’s raised, embossed, impressed or multicolored seal, registrar’s signature, and the date the certificate was filed with the registrar’s office, which must be within 1 year of your birth.

**Please note, some short (abstract) versions of birth certificates may not be acceptable for passport purposes.

If you do not have an original copy then you can contact your city, state, or county in which you were born and they can send one to you. This will take more time and cost a bit of money, but this is a document that you should always have anyway — so it’s not a bad idea to get one if it is missing. I had to this to be able to get my passport, and the costs were relatively small around $8 or $10 to get it mailed to me.

If you are naturalized citizen, you will need your Naturalization Certificate to be able to get your passport. If you were born in another country and your parents are U.S. Citizens in a foreign country, then you will need a Consular Report of Birth Abroad or Certification of Birth. If you need this document and don’t have it, then just know that you will need to apply for this…and it will take some additional time.  So plan accordingly.

Step 2 – Get Your Passport Photo Made

Ah yes, then you need to get that highly anticipated non-smiling mug shot for your passport. We all love our drivers license photos, right?  Well there is no way around this important pic.  It is advisable to wear your typical street clothes and neutral, plain colored shirt (no crazy Hawaiian shirts) and have your hair looking “normal” — after all, this pic will be around for a long time.  You also shouldn’t wear any kind of hats or glasses, unless they are prescription and you wear them everyday.  If they cannot be tinted glasses either.

The goal is to look normal, as you would when you are traveling — for the next 10 years!

passport photos
Creative Commons Passport Pictures” by Alex Barth is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Can you take your own photo?  Technically, yes but we recommend that you go somewhere where you can get a professional to take it.  The size must be exact dimensions and a plain background is required.  It’s actually really easy and cheap to get your passport photo taken.  I got my photo taken at a local drugstore, like a CVS or Walgreens. But you can also got to your local AAA office to get one made, as well as many post offices.

Extra Passport Photos

You need 2 photos for your passport.  But places like CVS or Walgreens will often give you a sheet.  This is great — don’t throw them out!  We recommend that you get several photos to keep for future needs, like visas. Some countries require passport photos to acquire a visa.

While some countries have particular photo requirements, many are similar. So it is best to have some extras made that you can carry around in your Passport Wallet.  We have had to pull these out many times during our travels — so they are really handy to keep around.  And it saves you the hassle of having to get one made while on the road, or each time you need a visa.

Step 3 – Pay the Fees

Money, Money, Money.  While you don’t have to be rich to travel, it’s no secret that you need at least some money to travel and see the world.  And of course, you also need to spend a little cash to be able get a passport – the little blue book required to travel outside the States.  As of the date of this post, here are the prices for a new US Passport:

  • For anyone over 16 years of age, the total cost is $110 USD (paid to the department of state)+ $25 acceptance fee (to facility processing it).
    For anyone under 16 years of age, the total cost is $80 USD (paid to the department of state)+ $25 acceptance fee (to facility processing it).
Money for Passport CC
Creative Commons 40+267 Weekend” by bark is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Very Important, but annoying thing about paying these fees is that you will need to pay with a check or by money order. You will need to have two separate checks. The first will have to be made out to Department of State, covering that application fee and the second made payable to where you are applying to.

** NOTE:  You also have the option for a Passport Card.  This is a less expensive item that can be used for travel only to certain countries (such as Canada, Mexico, Caribbean, etc.).  For some people, this might be all they need.  But it does have some restrictions, so be sure to check which option is best for you now…and in the future.

Step 4 – Fill Out the Application

The most important step for getting your first USA Passport is correctly filling out the Passport Application. It’s relatively easy, but you want to make sure to take your time in filling it out. You don’t want to have to redo it, or have to postpone your trip because of a missing section.

You can fill out the application online and print it off, or you can print a hard copy (PDF version) and hand write it out (only if you have good handwriting!). You can also go to your local post office to get the form and fill it out there.

Step 5 – Drop the Documents at an Acceptance Facility & Get Your Passport!

Once you have completed the above steps, you are ready to drop it off at an acceptance facility.  But before mailing, be sure to double check everything.

  • Application?
  • Payment?
  • Passport Photos?
  • Proof of Citizenship?
Post Office
Creative Commons Post Office at Adams Run, South Carolina” by Bruce Tuten is licensed under CC BY 2.0

When you are ready to turn your application in, you must go to an “Acceptance Facility.”   The best place to turn it all in to is your local post office. This is where I turned in all my stuff and felt extremely safe about it. The Post Office is a US Government facility that handles passport applications all the time.

But you can also turn it into other designated government offices, such as your local courthouse, county offices and other government facilities. The simplest way to find out where to turn in your Passport Application in this Search Form.

**Note that you will be mailing off your Birth Certificate during your application process. You will get it mailed back to you with your passport.

Processing Time

Normal processing time is 4-6 weeks, but often times, it won’t take that long.  However, you should plan for this much time…just in case.  If you need your passport earlier, then you can expedite it in 2-3 weeks.  Anything sooner than that is considered an emergency, and you will have to go to a passport agency and meet certain criteria (with additional fees).

When finished, your passport will be mailed to your home address.


Once you’re done, all you have to do is wait for that important package in the mail. When it arrives, it’s like opening up a gift on Christmas morning.  The world is now your playground.  You can start making your travel plans without being restricted, due to a little book.

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