From the moment I learned that my six-week old son needed a passport for an upcoming trip to France, I knew that his mother, Beth, and I were in for a steady diet of headaches and laughs. The process, which I hope is near completion, has indeed provided us with both.Since the onset of this ordeal, I have tried to envision our son, Archie, going through French or American customs. While Beth and I are convinced that he is quite advanced and extremely gifted, I doubt very much that he could successfully answer any questions from immigration officials on either side of the Atlantic. At this point, the only things he could likely declare is that he enjoys sucking his fist and things that are soft and fluffy.
I am sure that the American government has determined with good reason that infants need passports, and in today’s world of heightened security, countries can never be too cautious. However, there must be some sort of happy medium between national defense and abundant wastes of time. I also know that the U.S. Congress has much to do, but I hope that in between attending six-figure fundraisers and distancing themselves from their former pals and sunken figures at so many scandalously failed corporations, the good men and women of Washington could alleviate some of the obstacles in obtaining an official document for a 12-pound, 26-inch boy.
Let me also state, that it has been my wife who has dealt with the bulk of the responsibility for getting Archie his passport. She has been the one to load him in the car and set out for the post office, photo mat, and town hall. I have principally been an entertained eyewitness to the entire process, but still believe I have a duty to share the absurdity of the situation with fellow parents and travelers.
Despite the blithe tone of this piece, parents who plan to travel internationally with their children should assume that the State Department will not share my sense of humor on the subject, and will definitely require a passport for any child, no matter how young or how cute. Parents should also recognize that with absolutely no snags, the process to acquire a new passport usually takes up to six weeks. I hope the tone of this article successfully suggests that a snag-free procedure is highly unlikely. There is also an option for “expedited passport services” that, for an additional $60, will deliver a passport in only two weeks. (I suspect two weeks is the government’s equivalent of lightening speed.)
Most of the information concerning passport issues can be found on the State Departments Web site, http://travel.state.gov/passport_services.html. Not surprisingly, the site is a lot like the government itself: it offers some guidance, without being completely comprehensive or totally insightful: it has decent potential, but fails in its overall execution. Much of the site is vague and incomplete, and it reminds me of Dan Quayle’s vice presidency. Sure, he was young, handsome, and energetic, but he also misspelled potato in front of a second grade class. The Web site provides some assistance on what parents should expect when applying for a passport for anyone under the age of fourteen and it should be utilized as a starting point. It details some of the whats, whens, wheres, and hows that are moderately useful, but are not wholly reassuring, in this quest. The site is teeming with references to official issues like, the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 and Public Law 106-113. And no governmental resource would be complete without a tedious list of numbered forms such as DS-11, DS-71, FS-240, and my personal favorite, DS-1350. I also gathered from the Web site that Archie and I should avoid places such as Iran, Iraq, Uzbekistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and other inviting destinations. These warnings proved to be a tremendous asset, as I have since reevaluated my decision to rent a summer place in Baghdad.
As I wrote earlier, the State Department Web site did proffer some information that enabled us to begin our quest for Archie’s passport. The site offers a search function that determines the nearest designated passport agency. Besides most post offices, other facilities may include municipal buildings, clerks of court, and public libraries. We opted for our local post office, piled Archie and his countless travel accessories into our station wagon, and set out to witness effective government in action.
Picking up the application proved to be quite easy, but we soon realized that like an Internet IPO, the good times would not last forever. The first sign of trouble was securing a suitable photo of Archie for his passport picture. I do not know a lot about the world of fashion, but I honestly believe that prospective Vogue cover shots are given less scrutiny than were those taken of Archie. We tried to follow the guidelines detailed on the Web site, but were frustrated early and often by the minute flaws that disqualified countless photos. More than four sets of photographs were rejected, and my wife and I were left in a state of amused frustration. First of all, propping up a two-month-old child on a stool and getting him to face a camera is no easy task; Beth and I thought Archie’s unyielding cooperation should alone merit acceptable photos, but again, the government saw otherwise. One set of headshots was rejected because there was not enough of Archie’s head in the picture. How could that be? I pondered. The boy is almost all head and no body! Another pair was rebuffed on the grounds that one of his ears was not entirely visible. The last and most amusing rejection was based on the darkened nature of the background screen. The reason for the dimmer background, I protested, was due to my crouched and cramped body, which had been positioned behind Archie to support him while he sat for another photo shoot. Keep trying, I was flatly told. Luckily for us, the obliging staff at the photo mat joined in our obsession of satisfying the requirements, and worked industriously to help us obtain sufficient headshots. At last, with the stars properly aligned, we captured our white whale. The accepted shots did not differ vastly from the previous ones, but the postal inspector sanctioned our most recent submissions, as we inched one step closer to getting Archie his passport.
For future reference, you should know that standards for passport photos are generally not too demanding, except of course, when pertaining to an infant, and many of the regulations did not apply to Archie’s photos. For example, he does not wear a toupee, eyeglasses, or a hearing device, which the State Department compels people to wear for their photographs. Other photo conditions include the following:
- Pictures need to be 2 inches x 2 inches and identical.
- Photos must be taken within the last six months (not an issue for us, as Archie had only been on the earth for about 60 days) and show current appearance.
- A frontal view of the full face is needed with white or off-white background.
- The picture of the face must be between 1 inch and 1 3/8 inches from the bottom of the chin to the top of the head.
- No hats or headgear that obscure the hair or hairline are allowed.
- No uniforms are tolerated, with the exception of religious wear worn on a daily basis.
- Color or black and white photos are acceptable.
- Dark glasses and nonprescription tinted glasses are not permitted, unless for medical purposes, in which case a medical certificate may be required.
After completing the back and forth with the post office and the photo mat, the process seemed to gain some momentum and the inanity was reduced, although not completely eliminated. With our officially authorized photos, we tackled the passport application, which we collected at the post office, and it was reasonably straightforward. The Web site claims that applications can be downloaded, an assertion I found to be slightly dubious. I had a difficult time completing the process, and while my wife possesses stronger computer skills, I am generally adept enough to handle a simple file download.
With our completed application and pictures, our confidence was on the rise. We were fairly certain that Archie would be joining us on the trip, and we would not have to leave him at the kennel with our faithful dog Aggie. At this stage, the website again proved valuable as Beth and I learned what was needed to complete the process. Proof of citizenship for child and parent was a prerequisite for his obtaining a passport. To establish Archie’s citizenship, another visit to a government building was called for, so his mother set off for town hall to retrieve his birth certificate, which is the most logical document to use. Parents who cannot obtain, or do not have, a birth certificate for their children face further hurdles and additional forms that are detailed on the Web site. Beth and I were able to prove our own citizenship by providing one of the following documents: valid U.S. driver’s license, valid and official U.S. Military ID, valid U.S. government ID, valid U.S. or foreign passport with recognizable photo, alien resident card from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), or naturalization/citizenship certificate from INS with recognizable photo.
We then had to present sufficient evidence that Archie was our child. Given the fact that today, kids can now be adopted on the Internet, I wholeheartedly support this measure. Again, this was uncomplicated for us since we are listed as his parents on Archie’s birth certificate; however, parents without a birth certificate, and custodians or guardians should again refer to the Web site or call the National Passport Information Center at 1-900-225-5674 ($0.55 per minute, per call) to locate other acceptable documents.
Yet another step the government necessitates that I applaud is a consent form from both parents permitting the issuance of the child’s passport. I gather this is to prevent one spouse from leaving the country with the child/children without the support or knowledge of his/her partner. Obviously, this could be a valid concern when custody battles turn malicious. While I am fairly certain that neither Beth nor I is likely to grab Archie and join up with a band of Basque separatists, nonetheless, I appreciate this provision. If both parents are unable to appear together, there are other options available, including a consent form for the absent parent to sign.
That’s about it for the initial application process. Beth and I are currently awaiting Archie’s passport, which we hope will take him to France, and other grand destinations throughout his life. Since Archie will be just shy of his four-month birthday when he arrives at Charles De Gaulle Airport, it is unlikely that he will remember his first international journey, but I know that his mother and I will never forget it.
And by the way, I realize the last few paragraphs have exhibited some beneficial facets of the State Department, and our government in action, and I may have been too harsh in my earlier appraisal. I’d like to apologize to them for that ‘Dan Quayle’ crack, it was a low blow.
Editor’s Note: You’ll be happy to learn that Archie did indeed receive his first passport, and is well on his way to becoming a world traveler. Of course, he’ll need to get new one once he grows some hair.