PHILADELPHIA -- Panic is growing among travelers. Many are saying their upcoming trips are in jeopardy because they can't get their passports.
If you need a new passport, you are urged to apply as soon as possible because this is a nightmare situation. And Passport Services says to expect things to get worse before they get better.
"I'm heading over to Dublin, Ireland, obviously, Friday St. Patrick's Day, and this is my first international trip since COVID-19," said C.J. Leonard of Roslyn, Montgomery County.
But the trip almost didn't happen.
"I almost was not able to secure my passport," she said.
For her March 12 departure, Leonard applied for her passport online on January 22 with expedited service.
"It said, 'three to five weeks at the time,'" recalled Leonard.
But then the processing time changed.
"If you applied 'expedited' after February 6, it looks like the timeline was updated 'five to seven weeks,'" said Leonard.
And the online renewal program has been put on pause. The Department of State is calling customers who renewed online "volunteers" who helped "test" the system.
It says a full online rollout with improvements is expected later this year.
Meantime, when her passport didn't arrive, Leonard tried to get help from the Office of Passport Services.
"I proceeded to wait on hold for two hours, roughly two hours or 45 minutes," said Leonard.
"That's the reality of our situation right now. We have two call centers throughout the country. We have over 1,000 phone lines with hundreds of customer service representatives," explained Andres Rodriguez of the U.S. Office of Passport Services. "What we're seeing now is just a higher number of people applying for passports earlier in the year."
The Department of State's website says processing time is eight to eleven weeks with routine service and five to seven weeks for expedited.
But that is not what consumers are experiencing.
And good luck getting an appointment at a passport agency near you.
"The only appointments we have are in Seattle, Honolulu and San Juan, Puerto Rico," said Rodriguez.
Passport Services says it has increased its hiring efforts.
"We have employees working many hours of overtime," said Rodriguez.
But a warning: Passport Services does not expect the situation to improve any time soon.
"We are projecting that those times are going to get longer," he said.
The Office of Passport Services doesn't call it a backlog, by the way, but "an elevated level of work."
The good news for Leonard, she got her passport just in time for her trip thanks to her local congresswoman.
Leonard also shared a pro-tip for the shortest wait time on the phone: start dialing just before 8 a.m.
More from a Department of State spokesperson:
1.It's come to our attention that people who renewed passports online are now being referred to as "volunteer" who helped "test" the system... and the online renewal system has been put on pause. Is this correct? When will it be back online? Why was it paused and what changes will be made before it's available for use again?
"We are committed to the President's Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government. Delivering on this promise, we began testing a secure online passport renewal (OPR) option.
We launched the limited release of OPR in February 2022 for federal government employees and contractors. In August 2022, we expanded the audience to include the public, with controlled availability on a monthly basis to allow for training of employees and to test the system. Since that time, over 500,000 customers have successfully applied online. Based on feedback and learning from the limited releases, we continue to make improvements to optimize the user experience for renewing passports online.
On February 7, we temporarily closed the online renewal service to new customers. This pause allows us to process existing applications submitted through OPR and continue to make improvements to the customer experience."
2. What do you say to people who can't get an appointment at a passport agency within their 5 days of planned travel... even though they applied within the expected processing time?
"We have procedures in place for those Americans who must travel at the last minute for emergency, life-or-death situations. This typically refers to travel within three business days because an immediate family member outside of the United States has died, is dying, or has a life-threatening illness or injury. Further information is on our website.
We also have procedures in place for individuals who have urgent international travel within 14 calendar days. However, for those who need a last-minute passport for leisure travel, they should expect that our appointments will fill up quickly. Again, our message to U.S. citizens is to plan far ahead to avoid such a situation."
3. How many people were able to apply online successfully?
"See response to question #1."
4.Can people who've never had a passport apply online - or was the online system for renewals only?
"First-time passport applicants were not eligible to participate in the limited-release online passport renewal pilot."
5. The State Department websites shows current wait times are 8-11 weeks for routine service and 5-7 weeks for expedited. Is this correct?
"That is correct. Routine passport processing can take eight to eleven weeks, and an expedited processing takes five to seven weeks and costs $60. Those processing times will rise as we approach the summer travel season.
We are committed to transparency and will continue to provide regular updates about passport processing times, and to encourage Americans to apply for their passport well in advance of any planned international travel to save money and avoid last-minute issues or frustration."
6. Consumers tell us they are waiting longer. Any response?
"Processing times begin when we receive an application and do not include delivery times.
While in the majority of cases, we are meeting our processing times, we understand that some customers who renewed online during our limited release are facing delays in receiving their passports.
We are committed to working with customers directly on these issues. We will make every effort to issue a passport before there is a need to schedule an urgent travel appointment. However, individuals who applied online and have not received their passport within five days of planned should call the National Passport Information Center at 1-877-487-2778 to make an appointment at a passport agency.
Customers who renew online can also pay to upgrade to expedited service or 1-2 day delivery of their completed passports. Customers can log into their accounts, click on "Manage Application," and pay for these services up until the time their applications are approved.
The vast majority of passport customers are being served within published timeframes. However, if an applicant paid the $60 fee for expedited service when they applied and did not receive expedited service, they can request a refund of this fee. Additional information on requesting refunds is available on our website."