WASHINGTON — American travelers who do not currently have valid U.S. passports may not be able to travel overseas this summer due to extensive wait times as the State Department deals with a backlog of more than a million applications caused largely by the coronavirus pandemic, a department official said Wednesday.
"Currently, our wait time for both new and renewal routine passport applications can be up to 18 weeks, and that includes our processing time, the initial internal intake of the applications, and mailing," Deputy Assistant Secretary for Passport Services Rachel Arndt told reporters on a call. She said wait times for expedited passports — which cost a $60 fee — are up to 12 weeks.
"This means people who submit new passport applications right now will not get their new passport until well into the fall," she said, noting that "last-minute passport appointments are extremely limited."
"U.S. citizens who wish to travel overseas this summer and do not currently have a passport may need to make alternate travel plans," she said.
Arndt said the backlog of passport applications "currently is somewhere in the range of a million and a half to 2 million applications."
"That is somewhat higher than what we would normally expect to see. However, that was really because as the travelers were ramping up with the vaccinations availability, the workload started coming in faster than we had — we would normally see," she said.
Arndt attributed many of the current issues with passport processing to the coronavirus pandemic, noting that "the pandemic's disruptions continue to have a ripple effect on all steps of the passport process, including the amount of time it currently takes us to process a passport application."
She said that the State Department is "going to have over 150 staff returning to 21 agencies across the country, and that will increase our capacity to process applications more quickly" and they "are looking at surging back to pre-pandemic staffing levels and additional staff for both government and contractor staff."
Arndt said staff had returned to passport centers in 17 cities and that, "we have an additional five that we are anticipating approval to move, to be completely open, with all staff back in the office."
"Passport specialists need to be physically present in the office to process the passports," Arndt noted. "They are not processing remotely or from home. What we have for our issuance process, we require a connectivity to systems and databases that are currently only accessible from within our facilities."
"And, of course, the physical printing and mailing of the passport books and cards occurs from our facility," she added.
Arndt warned about scams selling passport appointments online, advising that "the Department of State does not charge a fee to solely book an emergency appointment at one of our agencies or centers, so if anyone receives a request for payment for scheduling a U.S. passport appointment, that should be considered fraudulent."
"I'd also like to say that the department is not affiliated with any third-party appointment booking services, and we've seen numerous instances of falsified appointment bookings through these vendors. And unfortunately, we may not be able to honor appointments booked via third party, so we are aware and are working to try to rectify that situation," she said.
On Monday, Reps. Gregory Meeks and Michael McCaul — the chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking that the State Department "prioritize efforts to reduce processing time for passport applications," noting that the current wait times "go well beyond usual processing times prior to the start of the COVID-19 global pandemic."
The New York Democrat and Texas Republican asked the department to provide answers by Friday about its strategy to reduce processing times, its estimated time frame to get back to pre-pandemic wait times, and what additional resources or authorities from Congress it might need to address the issues. Arndt told reporters, "I am certain that we have received that letter and will respond promptly."