As pandemic fears ease and travelers hasten to return to the road, airlines and hotels are not the ones surprised by the rebound of travel bookings. The US State Department is finding itself facing significant delays in fulfilling both new and renewing passport applications.
The backlog of some 2.2 million passport applications is resulting in wait times of 18 to 24 weeks, according to Sen. James Lankford, R-OK, in a letter sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
In a press briefing last week, Rachel Arndt, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for passport services, downplayed the numbers somewhat, while still acknowledging the unusually high volume of applications.
“Our backlog currently is somewhere in the range of a million-and-a-half to 2 million applications. That is somewhat higher than what we would normally expect to see,” Arndt said. “Currently our wait time for both new and renewal routine passport applications can be up to 18 weeks.”
Applicants can speed up the process by paying an expedite fee of $60, but the time could still be up to 12 weeks, Arndt said, “depending on the mailing time.”
In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the State Department to suspend normal Consular Affairs operations, which included passport processing. By June 2020, the pause produced a backlog of 1.7 million applications, Lankford noted in his letter. However, he said, with some changes in processes and personnel, the department cleared the backlog by fall of 2020.
At that point, the processing time for an application was a more typical 4 to 6 weeks.
Key to the Lockbox
Now, with the number of applications skyrocketing, the State Department and its contractors are short-handed, with “operational issues” leading to extended wait times.
One key issue is a part of the process called the “lockbox.” When a traveler applies for a passport or passport renewal, the file goes into the “lockbox” and is given a locator number. That step, which would typically take 24 hours, is now delaying applications up to six weeks, said Lankford.
According to Lankford’s letter, Citibank, which is the contractor for the lockbox, is itself understaffed, prompting Lankford to warn, “I would support a search for alternative contractors for this phase of the process who can get the job done.”
In response to the delays, Arndt noted the State Department is bringing staff back into its offices across the country as restrictions ease. “As of July 12, we had passport agencies where staff was returning, all of the staff was returning in 17 cities,” she said. “We have an additional five that we are anticipating approval to move to be completely open with all staff back in the office.”
Still, she warned, “It will take time for our wait times to fall from the current 12 to 18 weeks to pre-pandemic levels. This means people who submit new passport applications right now will not get their new passport until well into the fall.”
Arndt also cautioned applicants to be wary of third-party companies that may offer to sell passport appointments online, as she said these should be considered fraudulent.
“The pandemic’s disruptions continue to have a ripple effect on all steps of the passport process, including the amount of time it currently takes us to process a passport application,” Arndt said. “US citizens who wish to travel overseas this summer and do not currently have a passport may need to make alternate travel plans.”