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To Americans Planning To Travel Abroad: Update Those Passports Before It's Too Late

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now that some travel destinations are opening up again, the State Department has some advice. Make sure you keep your passport up to date. And if you need a new one, prepare to wait. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Here's a cautionary tale from one of my colleagues, Jason Beaubien.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: After a year of not traveling at all internationally and hardly traveling at all even domestically, I pulled out my passport to get ready for a trip to Africa, only to discover that I only had four months left on that passport.

KELEMEN: Most countries require that you have six months left on your passport, so Jason had to scramble. He searched online for appointments to get a passport in time to go on assignment. Finally, one popped up in Arkansas, so he hopped on a plane.

BEAUBIEN: And when I get to the office, the security guards are mentioning that people are coming from all over the country to Arkansas. They're even recommending barbecue places that they can go nearby while you're waiting. In the lobby, there was one guy from Dallas, another guy from Atlanta. I didn't see anyone from Arkansas in the Arkansas passport office trying to get a passport.

KELEMEN: The State Department has 26 passport offices across the country. Usually they take only urgent cases. And Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Ian Brownlee says Americans should plan ahead.

IAN BROWNLEE: I would not want to talk about your colleague. I will encourage people to not be like my wife and wait until the passport's ready to expire. So we are filling out a new application for hers, even though her passport doesn't expire for another six months.

KELEMEN: These days, it takes 10 to 12 weeks to get a new passport by mail, four to six weeks if you pay an extra fee. That's longer than usual because of staffing challenges due to the pandemic. Brownlee has another tip for would-be travelers. Make sure you check out the State Department's website, travel.state.gov.

BROWNLEE: Enter the name of the country where you're thinking of traveling, and look at the very latest information about a variety of topics in that country - COVID conditions, crime conditions, if applicable, terrorism conditions, that sort of thing.

KELEMEN: The CDC is still encouraging Americans to avoid most countries because of the pandemic. Even countries that are doing well, like New Zealand, have very strict rules to get in. Last year, Brownlee oversaw a massive operation to help Americans return home as countries began imposing travel restrictions. He'd like to avoid a repeat of that. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.