Getting an American Passport. Part 1.
Spring Break just happened, and summer vacation approaches. I, having a chronic case of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), listened with envy to my friends’ travel plans. Many of them were staying stateside, but a few were going to Asia and Europe.
Also, my sister’s been texting me with amazing flight deals.
The problem is, I don’t have an American passport. I had a Filipino one, which expired a while back, and I never bothered to get an American passport after I became a U.S. citizen.
The power of the American Passport. It is one of the most “powerful” passports in the world. If you have one, you can visit 154 out of the current 196 countries in the world (info as of April 2016) without first applying for a visa (permission to visit, from the destination country). German passports allow visa-free visits for 157 countries, earning it the rank of “most powerful passport”. My Filipino passport only allows visa-free visits to 61 countries, and Afghanistan, 25.
Here’s an example of how visas work. When I was 16, I partook in a student exchange program to Belgium but I had a Filipino passport. I had to apply for a visa not just to get into Belgium, but one which would allow me entry into neighboring countries should my host family decide to travel. I applied for and received a Schengen visa, which allows travel between the 26 countries who’ve agreed to let people mingle among their borders. It’s a most of the western European countries. Luckily, I just had to send in paperwork and my Filipino passport, which came back a few weeks later with a cool Schengen Visa stamp.
Each country has a different protocol for issuing visitor visas, however, and not all applications are approved. For example, the procedure for getting a visa from the Philippines to the U.S. requires an interview, and a non-refundable fee of $160 (American dollars). An average-ish salary for a white-collar job is about $10k a year. That non-refundable fee can be an obstacle for the average person. The interview, I’ve heard, is tough and the make-it-or-break-it moment.
If you were once approved for a visa but overstayed (stayed beyond the time you were given permission to be in the United States), and you were caught and deported but couldn’t pay for your own plane ticket back to the Philippines, you are blacklisted and you’ll never get a visa for the U.S. again. If you paid for your own ticket back to the Philippines, though, you can apply for another visa at a future date. – This is according to my mom. I don’t know how accurate it is, but it’s not the first time I’ve heard of people being “blacklisted”.
Back to my Quest for a U.S. passport:
I thought about it and came to the conclusion that I should get one now, while I don’t urgently need one, rather than later, if I actually do *have* to travel. Also, I reasoned that waiting only prolonged the state of “not having a passport”; there was no benefit to waiting, and only good things would come out of me getting a passport now versus later.
Step 1. Look it up on the Internet. (this is my default “step 1”)
Things I learned:
***Most important thing I learned: There are many sites that pop up under the search term “apply for US passport”. Some of them seem shady, some are magazine sites, some are difficult to navigate. Applying for a passport inherently requires divulging information and sending papers that prove you are who you say you are – information and papers that can be used to steal your identity. If you’re unsure of anything, I suggest going straight to the post office and talking to a government representative in person. As much as I hate the post office, it’s preferable to revealing personal information on the internet.***
- Since I was not born in the U.S. and it’s my *first* American Passport, I must get one “in person.” What the heck does that mean? I have to go to a place sanctioned to give them out. What place? The Post Office. The dreaded Post Office. I fucking hate the Post Office.
- I have to make an appointment to apply in person. Ok. Next Friday is clear on my schedule.
- It will cost about $150 per passport+card combo. (I figured, if I’m getting one for myself, might as well do all 3 of my family members.) Well, that’s a chunk to work into the weekly budget. With this in mind, I plan on staggering our appointments so we’re not paying $600 in one go. – Wait a minute, $600? Yes, the $150 doesn’t take into account additional fees like “processing” and having an official passport photo taken (no, you can’t use the best selfie you have on your phone). It’ll be about $200 per person.
- Our new American passports will be valid for 10 years, and Grimlock’s (under 15yo) will last for 5 years. That makes it kind of okay that we’re shelling out about $200 per person. Kind of.
- For my appointment to get my passport, I will need to bring, in addition to the form, Evidence of Citizenship and Present Identification. For my purpose (and anyone else in the same circumstance), I can use my “Certificate of Naturalization or Citizenship” for both of these criteria.
What the heck is a Certificate of Naturalization or Citizenship? It’s a piece of paper that means I’m an American citizen now, but I was not born here.
This is different from having a Green Card. If you’re an immigrant and you’ve been given a Green Card, it means you have “Legal Permanent Resident (LPR)” status. It’s like being between an Immigrant and a Citizen. You can live in the U.S., you can work in the U.S., you can travel out of and return to the U.S. (with stipulations), and you can petition for certain close family members to have Green Cards too.
However, you can lose your LPR status. Your Green Card can be revoked if you violate the terms of agreement.
Naturalized citizenship can’t be revoked, unless the person got it by lying (committing fraud, falsifying documents, etc).
Don’t confuse Green Card (which, when I had one, was not even green) with the Social Security Card (which *is* green).
A Social Security Card has your social security number and your name. No photo, which means you will rarely be able to use it as proof of identity.
A Green Card has your photo, but not your SSN. It looks like a beefed up Driver’s License, and you can use it as proof of identity in many places.
A Certificate of Naturalization or Citizenship is an 8×10 piece of paper that literally looks like a certificate you could get for participating in a spelling bee, but with nicer ink. It also has your photo. If you get one of these, take very good care of it because you will need it for things such as getting your first American Passport, applying for certain insurances or government intervention, but it is just a piece of paper and can get damaged more easily than a laminated card. Don’t laminate it, though!
Back to my Quest for a U.S. Passport:
After making a list of what I have to do, where I have to go, how much it’ll cost, and what I need to bring, I packed up my baby nephew and 5yo and we went downtown to the post office.
It’ll be fine, I thought. Surely they’ve made vast improvements since last time I visited many years ago.
On a weekday, at 11:30, so just before the lunch traffic, I managed to score a parking spot only two blocks away.
Then we went to the post office, and it was terrible.
There were people trying to use the self-service weighing and mailing station, but no one knew what they were doing. The “line” was a group of people unsure who was next in line, what to put where, which boxes and labels to use, etc.
Then there’s the Island of Forms. It’s literally an island, like a kitchen island, long and oval like a french bread loaf, with people all around it filling out forms. A ciliated amoeba comes to mind.
The Island of Forms diagonally splits the main part of the post office in two. On the left is some kind of half-assed store where you can buy last-minute gift boxes and flimsy greeting cards. But it’s behind a glass-paneled partition that doesn’t quite go all the way around, like someone was supposed to close it but gave up halfway.
On the other side of the Island of Forms is the main line to interact with actual postal workers. But due to its proximity to the Island of Forms, it’s difficult to tell who’s actually in line, and who’s filling out a form. There’s always, ALWAYS that one asshole who’s filling out a form *while* they’re in line, so people think they’re filling out a form and get in line ahead of them, and the asshole has a big fit about getting cut in line.
I got in the very long main line because I saw no “Apply for Passports here” sign anywhere.
As I got closer to the help counter, I noticed a dutch door to the right – if you’re unfamiliar with these cool doors, they’re split in the middle, so you can have the top one open while keeping the bottom closed.
A white-haired man was leaning on the bottom half and talking to a Caucasian man with two preteens. And behind them was an Asian man with a young boy. The only sign next to that door was a list of postal box size options and how much it costs to rent them per year. I surmised that that line is for people renting postal boxes and ignored it.
About half an hour later, after I’d fed my nephew two pouches of vegetable mush and my son has collected one of every form for his play office at home, we finally got to the help counter.
“I’d like to apply for a passport,” I said.
Postal man looked at me oddly. “Do you have an appointment?”
“I’d like to make an appointment,” I said.
“That’s the line for passports,” he said, nodding at the dutch door, now closed for lunch.
Storm clouds must’ve gathered on my face. I could’ve been in a shorter line, made the appointment, and left. But there was no sign indicating that’s where I should’ve been.
Postal man must’ve sensed the coming storm. He said, “Let me get the appointment book. I’ll take care of it.”
Interesting to note that it’s not a digital calendar but an actual book… Whatever. I checked my phone. Next Friday still looked good.
He came back with a black planner and started flipping pages. All the way to June. JUNE.
“What day of the week would you like?” he said.
“Wait. Is that June?” Two months away.
“Yes. We’re booked until then. When do you plan on traveling?”
I didn’t have any immediate plans but threw out a random month. “November.”
“Oh, you’ve got plenty of time.”
I wish he hadn’t said that. Anyone who reads a lot would know that’s a classic jinxing phrase. Even if I didn’t have a concrete travel plans.
“Uh…Ok,” I said. “Can 3 people apply at the same appointment or do I need to book the afternoon?”
“… Which is it?” I said.
“Three people, half an hour.”
“Half an hour each or all together?”
“Uh… Okay,” I said. “Friday? Your latest slot?”
“Ok.” He wrote my first name and phone number into the appointment.
I left the counter.
The flow of the line forces people in one direction – at least, people should be leaving in that direction, not adding to the clusterfuck by leaving the way they came in and forcing everyone to move out of the line next to the Island of Forms
As we headed down the correct direction, we passed a door with 2 signs next to it. “Apply for a U.S. Passport here.” and “PASSPORT BY APPOINTMENT ONLY”.
Incredibly misleading, in that these signs are next to a door which is *not* the one that the postal man indicated. Really, those two signs are not helping anyone, except they happen to be next to the slot with the passport applications. I grabbed several applications and left.
In short, the chaos in the post office can easily be remedied by better signs, better indications of which lines lead where, and separating the Island of Forms from the main line. Really, better signage would fix 80% of the post office issues. I would hate it less.
And if you want to get your first U.S. passport in this city, make the appointment now.
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