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The Passport Report (That I Cannot Read)
May 18, 2017 -- For a guy rarely out of physical contact of his passport, I sure keep making the same mistake.

A decade ago, I wrote about needing my passport renewed quickly because a country I was visiting insisted on six-months validity. And damned if it didn't happen again, this month, nearly ten years later.

Three weeks ago, I realized that a trip I've planned for the end of this month would require me to transit a country that required my passport to be valid for six months. My passport only had four months to run.

I am sure I cursed at my little blue book and I know I picked again at those annoying security stickers the world's airlines insist on attaching to the covers. Then on that last Friday of April, I started frantically searching the State Department Web site for options.

You may know this drill: State will schedule an in-person appointment if you must travel within two weeks. But with a four-week window, I was in a bureaucratic no-man's land. State wouldn't see me and its best alternate mail-in option, "expedited service," requires "2-3 weeks." (That compares to State's "routine" service of "6-8 weeks.")

I sighed and made mental peace with the fact that I'd have to pay the usurious fees charged by expediters, those free-market middlemen who profit by our laziness and inability to keep passport and visa rules in our heads.

Before that, though, and mostly just for grins and giggles, I called the State Department's National Passport Information Department (877-487-2778). I wondered if the feds had any recommendations for an expediter.

"I don't know much about the third-party operators," said Marjorie, a cheerful woman I reached after climbing an automated phone tree for a few key punches. "But are you sure you need one?"

Marjorie's engagement actually encouraged me and I told her my details: Trip coming up in 30 days, need renewal, site says no appointments unless you're traveling in two weeks.

Marjorie eagerly embraced the challenge.

"Well, I can book you an appointment, but the first date I can find in New York City is May 17. Why don't you just use our expedited mail-in service?"

I explained to Marjorie that the thought of "2-3 weeks" chilled the bones of a skeptical frequent flyer facing an international trip in four weeks.

"Look," she said earnestly. "If on Monday [May 1] you overnight the application and use the expedited service, I think you'll have your passport back on Monday, May 22."

"Hey, Marjorie," I said, "May 22 is my birthday. I'd hate not to get my passport back with just eight days to scramble before I had to fly."

"Well, obviously, I can't guarantee you'd get it back on May 22, but we are good at this. If there are no issues and this is a simple passport renewal, I don't see problems. You'd have your passport back in time."

I decided to bet on Marjorie's confidence.

So on Monday morning, May 1, I auto-filled the DS-82 renewal form, printed it out, wrote a check for $185.45--to cover the renewal fee, expedite fee and the overnight return delivery fee--and packed the Priority Express mail envelope with my old passport and a new picture from my stack of "gonna need a visa to go there" pictures.

A diversion here: In scanning the State Department site, I came across the obscure notice that passport photos now must not show you wearing glasses. I've been wearing glasses since the fourth grade, so surely the rule wouldn't apply to a hopelessly bespectacled type. Nope, said Marjorie, no glasses. "That's the biggest problem we have now. We reject tons of applications because of glasses."

A further diversion here: My passport photo from 1997 showed me wearing a blue sports jacket, deep reddish shirt, a tie and tinted eyeglasses. "You look like a Russian mobster, you know," a Kennedy Airport Customs agent once said with the snark reserved for a conversation between two guys who grew up in New York's boroughs. When I took my new photo in 2007, I wanted a less thuggish look, so I wore a blue Hawaiian shirt. "Now you look like a Russian mobster who retired in Miami," said my passport-photo guy. I keep using him, though, because he's smart. Last year he somehow convinced me to take a set of photos without glasses, so I was prepared for the no-specs rules. The problem? With my unfocused eyes, raised eyebrows and goofy grin, I now look like my father on a day he heard the Cleveland Indians once again traded his favorite player.

Anyway ... I took my application to the Post Office and sent it overnight to the National Passport Processing Center in Philadelphia. Then I waited.

You know what happens next, right? No, you don't ...

On Thursday, May 11, my passport arrived. Just 11 days from submission to return. But my old passport--which still has some valid visas--wasn't returned. The enclosed information sheet explained that my old passport was coming later under separate cover.

You know what happens next, right? No, you don't ...

On Saturday, May 13, an unassuming manila envelope arrived with my old passport. The State Department even returned the second photo I had included with my application just as a backup.

Damned fine service, if you ask me. And I wish I had a way of reaching Marjorie and saying thanks. She's as good and engaged a public servant as I could imagine.

I have now dutifully updated my Global Entry data and all of my airline profiles. I am good to go.

Except, of course, that I can't read any of this with my eyeglasses off ...


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