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Canceled trips and no refunds: Passport delays are derailing travelers

The U.S. is on track to surpass the record-setting 22 million passports issued last year.
Joe Raedle
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The U.S. is on track to surpass the record-setting 22 million passports issued last year.

Dakotah Hendricks from Virginia Beach, Va., made sure she did everything right in order to visit her husband, who is deployed overseas, this summer.

She filed an application for a new passport months in advance and paid for expedited processing. She spent hours on the phone with the passport hotline and even sought help from her local congressman. But four months later, Hendricks had no choice but to miss her flight.

"I applied for this with enough cushion room for there to be delays," she told NPR. "But that didn't matter."

Across the country, long-awaited reunions and hard-earned vacations are being upended by what the State Department described as an "unprecedented demand for passports."

In March, the department said standard processing time for a new or renewed passport could take up to 13 weeks. But many passport seekers are finding that the wait is well beyond that — leaving trips abroad compromised and travelers scrambling for refunds on airfare and lodging.

The State Department says it receives about 400,000 applications each week

The stubborn passport delays are, in part, a consequence of the pandemic. As the health crisis has waned, interest in international travel has picked up in turn — causing a surge in applications for new or renewed passports.

As of July, the State Department receives about 400,000 applications each week, which is only slightly lower than the record-setting volume of 500,000 applications received per week between January and May.

Last year, the U.S. issued 22 million passports, a historic high — and is expected to once again surpass the record this year.

A spokesperson for the State Department said they are hiring more staff and authorizing overtime to keep up with the demand. The department also plans to launch a website for online passport renewal applications by the end of the year. The online option is expected to help process about a quarter of applications.

Long wait times and thousands of dollars lost

Keisha Peterson from Maryland spent a year saving up over $3,000 for a vacation in the Bahamas — her 9-year-old daughter's first trip abroad. They planned to leave on Sunday.

But instead of packing, Peterson said she is finding out whether she can get a voucher or credit for their flights, because her daughter's passport did not come in time.

"I'm feeling disappointed, devastated, frustrated and just emotionally drained," she told NPR. "It should not be this hard to get a passport."

Peterson filed her daughter's application in March. Two weeks ago, she learned that she was missing some paperwork. After submitting the proper documents, Peterson learned on Friday that the department made a mistake about which documents they needed.

The only silver lining, Peterson said, was that her daughter did not know about the trip or that it was canceled, because it was meant to be a surprise.

"What she doesn't know can't hurt her," she said.

Meanwhile, Hendricks rescheduled her flight to a Mediterranean country, where she and her husband planned to meet, for mid-July. Up until recently, Hendricks, a former member of the U.S. Navy, did not need a passport because service members do not need one when they are sent abroad.

Hendricks said if she does not have her passport by then, she will have lost about $2,500 and will be unable to see her husband until he returns from deployment at the end of the year.

"It's my only chance," she said. "The way his schedule works, I don't get a redo."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.