Need a passport? Is it life or death? About 1.2 million people are ahead of you

Christopher Reynolds
Los Angeles Times

The U.S. State Department, which largely shut down its passport processing in March, says it is chipping away at a backlog of applications that have accumulated since then. But officials aren't giving any time estimates.

In fact, with more than 1.2 million passports awaiting issuance and many sites still closed or understaffed, those officials say the only new requests they can handle are "life-or-death" emergencies.

For everyone else who has applications and renewal requests in the pipeline, the agency's answer boils down to three words: "Expect significant delays."

Offices in Phase 1 and 2, like Detroit's office,  are only making appointments with customers who need a passport in the next 72 hours “for a life-or-death emergency.”

"We are committed to working as hard as we can to process applications as quickly as possible on a first-in, first-out basis," a State Department official said, requesting anonymity. Because of all the uncertainties that have come with the pandemic, the official said in an email, "we are not able to provide a specific update on when customers will receive their passport and supporting documents ... " The official said that when the information becomes available, it will appear on this page:

Instead of turning in any new applications or renewal forms, customers who aren't in life-and-death situations are being asked to wait until the passport officials give them a green light to go ahead.

"You can still apply now," the agency told would-be customers in a release recently, "but unless you have a life-or-death emergency, you will experience delays before receiving your passport and the return of your citizenship documents such as previous passports, and birth and naturalization certificates."

Many passport offices began reopening June 11. Nationally, the passport backlog was 1.43 million on July 8 and 1.31 million on July 15, the State Department said.

In the week ended July 22, officials said, the agency issued 198,000 passports, received another 143,000 applications and finished the time period with 1.23 million passports awaiting issuance.

The State Department plans to revive its passport work in three phases. Officials said recently that five passport agencies and centers have reached Phase 2 of reopening (that means "most staff" have resumed work that can only be performed in secure buildings). Another 12 passport agencies and centers have reached Phase 1, like Detroit's site (which means "some of our employees" are on site, but many are not).

But many sites have not yet reached Phase 1 productivity _ including the Passport Agency offices in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco and the Western Passport Center in Tucson, Ariz.

The Phase 1 and 2 sites, officials said, are only making appointments with customers who need a passport in the next 72 hours "for a life-or-death emergency." To make such appointments (which are more specifically defined on the Passport agency website), customers can call phone numbers listed on this web page.

Those emergency customers with appointments will be served, officials said, and those customers must wear cloth face coverings in all common areas and observe strict social distancing.

As for everyone else, officials say they are making steady progress and working this way in order to minimize the amount of time that employees and customers spend together, thereby reducing risk of transmitting COVID-19. Passport officials will not be able to offer expedited service (which was suspended in March) until the next phase of their reopening, date unknown.

"Unfortunately," the agency said, "we are not able to return documents before the passport is completed."

Before the pandemic, passport processing times routinely ran six to eight weeks, or eight days to three weeks for most expedited requests. Once State Department passport operations reach Phase 3, the State Department official said, "we anticipate a return to our previous customer service commitments and wait times."

Meanwhile, the State Department and Centers for Disease Control continue to urge Americans to avoid nonessential international travel because of the pandemic. Many countries in Europe and beyond have blocked U.S. travelers from entering because of the relatively high COVID-19 infection rates in the U.S.