US passport
Marni Larsen and her son, Damon Rasmussen of Holladay, Utah, wait their turn in line hoping to snag her son's passport outside the Los Angeles Passport Agency at the Federal Building in Los Angeles on Wednesday, June 14, 2023. Image Credit: AP

Washington: A much-feared backup of US passport applications has smashed into a wall of government bureaucracy as worldwide travel rebounds toward record pre-pandemic levels — with too few humans to handle the load.

The result, say aspiring travellers in the US and around the world, is a maddening pre-travel purgatory defined, at best, by costly uncertainty.

With family dreams and big money on the line, passport seekers describe a slow-motion agony of waiting, worrying, holding the line, refreshing the screen, complaining to Congress, paying extra fees and following incorrect directions. Some applicants are buying additional plane tickets to snag in-process passports where they sit — in other cities — in time to make the flights they booked in the first place.

So grim is the outlook that US officials aren’t even denying the problem or predicting when it will ease. They’re blaming the epic wait times on lingering pandemic -related staffing shortages and a pause of online processing this year. That’s left the passport agency flooded with a record-busting 500,000 applications a week. The deluge is on-track to top last year’s 22 million passports issued, the State Department says.

Stories from applicants and interviews by The Associated Press depict a system of crisis management, in which the agencies are prioritising urgent cases such as applicants travelling for reasons of “life or death” and those whose travel is only a few days off. For everyone else, the options are few and expensive.

It was early March when Dallas-area florist Ginger Collier applied for four passports ahead of a family vacation at the end of June. The clerk, she said, estimated wait times at eight to 11 weeks. They’d have their passports a month before they needed them. “Plenty of time,” Collier recalled thinking.

Then the State Department upped the wait time for a regular passport to as much as 13 weeks. “We’ll still be okay,” she thought.

At T-minus two weeks to travel, this was her assessment: “I can’t sleep.” This after months of calling, holding, pressing refresh on a website, trying her member of Congress — and stressing as the departure date loomed. Failure to obtain the family’s passports would mean losing $4,000, she said, as well as the chance to meet one of her sons in Italy after a study-abroad semester.

“My nerves are shot, because I may not be able to get to him,” she said. She calls the toll-free number every day, holds for as much as 90 minutes to be told — at best — that she might be able to get a required appointment at passport offices in other states.

“I can’t afford four more plane tickets anywhere in the United States to get a passport when I applied in plenty of time,” she said. “How about they just process my passports?”

Covid, the culprit

By March, concerned travellers began asking for answers and then demanding help, including from their representatives in the House and Senate, who widely reported at hearings this year that they were receiving more complaints from constituents on passport delays than any other issue.

The US secretary of state had an answer, of a sort.

US passport
A much-feared backup of US passport applications has smashed into a wall of government bureaucracy as worldwide travel rebounds toward record pre-pandemic levels — with too few humans to handle the load. Image Credit: AP

“With COVID, the bottom basically dropped out of the system,” Antony Blinken told a House subcommittee March 23 . When demand for travel all but disappeared during the pandemic, he said, the government let contractors go and reassigned staff that had been dedicated to handling passports.

Around the same time, the government also halted an online renewal system “to make sure that we can fine tune it and improve it,” Blinken said. He said the department is hiring agents as quickly as possible, opening more appointments and trying to address the crisis in other ways.

Passport applicants lit up social media groups, toll-free numbers and lawmakers’ phone lines with questions, appeals for advice and cries for help. Facebook and WhatsApp groups bristled with reports of bewilderment and fury. Reddit published eye-watering diaries, some more than 1,000 words long, of application dates, deposits submitted, contacts made, time on hold, money spent and appeals for advice.

It was 1952 when a law required, for the first time, passports for every US traveller abroad, even in peacetime. Now, passports are processed at centres around the country and printed at secure facilities in Washington, D.C. and Mississippi, according to the Government Printing Office.

But the number of Americans holding valid US passports has grown at roughly 10% faster than the population over the past three decades, according to Jay Zagorsky, an economist at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.

After passport delays derailed his own plans to travel to London earlier this year, Zagorsky found that the number of US passports per American has soared from about three per 100 people in 1989 to nearly 46 per 100 people in 2022. Americans, it turns out, are on the move.

“As a society gets richer,” says Zagorsky, “the people in that society say, ‘I want to visit the rest of the world.’”

Backlog hits overseas, too

At US consulates overseas, the quest for US visas and passports isn’t much brighter.

On a day in June, people in New Delhi could expect to wait 451 days for a visa interview, according to the website. Those in Sao Paulo could plan on waiting more than 600 days. Aspiring travellers in Mexico City were waiting about 750 days; in Bogota, Colombia, it was 801 days.

In Israel, the need is especially acute. More than 200,000 people with citizenship in both countries live in Israel. It’s one appointment per person, even for newborns, who must have both parents involved in the process, before travelling to the United States.

Batsheva Gutterman started looking for three appointments immediately after she had a baby in December, with an eye toward attending a family celebration in July, in Raleigh, N.C.

Her quest for three passports stretched from January to June, days before travel. And it only resolved after Gutterman payed a small fee to join a WhatsApp group that alerted her to new appointments, which stay available for only a few seconds. She ultimately got three appointments on three consecutive days — bureaucracy embodied.

“We had to drive the entire family with three small children, an hour-and-a-half to Tel Aviv three days in a row, taking off work and school,” she said. “This makes me incredibly uneasy having a baby in Israel as an American citizen, knowing there is no way I can fly with that baby until we get lucky with an appointment.”

Recently, there appeared to be some progress. The wait for an appointment for a renewed US passport stood at 360 days on June 8. On July 2, the wait was down to 90 days, according to the web site.