Most frequent travelers get their children’s passports early in the kid’s life.
My wife and I are not two of them. However, we had our reasons (which you’ll learn in a few minutes).
And it really kicked us in the tush this year. We missed several amazing SkyMiles sales to destinations such as Auckland, Tokyo, and Sydney. A couple of close friends invited us to join them on a fantastic cruise; they will forever rub it in our faces — as they should.
But we couldn’t go because our daughter doesn’t yet have a passport.
So, we decided to rectify that last week. My wife and daughter went to CVS for a passport picture. I filled out the DS-11 form on the Department of State’s website. But no appointments were available anywhere close to our neighborhood. We even thought about flying to Las Vegas (about a 45-minute flight) and taking care of it there — while staying a night or two.
Even that didn’t work.
Our only option was to get up last Saturday morning and wait in the walk-in line at the Van Nuys Mega Passport Center at the Van Nuys post office in Los Angeles.
How Long Were We in Line?
The “Mega Passport Center” (hilarious) claims to open at 9:00 AM on Saturdays. We originally planned to arrive around 8:30. That didn’t happen. We showed up at 9:00 AM.
“Uh oh,” my wife said when we parked in the relatively full lot. She spotted people carrying camping chairs. As far as we knew, those folks weren’t there to watch a soccer or baseball game. They, too, were there for passports.
We took our place in line — which at 9:03 was a good 110 people deep. That said, not every person in line needed a passport. For example, both parents must attend a child’s first passport application meeting. My wife and I have current passports. Our threesome was present for only one person.
But several other families of four, five, and six were there for the entire clan.
The gentleman next to us waited in line for his wife and two children. (We got lucky: he was a great “line buddy.” We enjoyed visiting with his wonderful family when they arrived later.)
A USPS worker came out and gave instructions to various sections of the long, snaking line around 9:15 AM. I asked her, “How long do you think the wait is from this point.”
“No idea!” she shot back.
A simple, “It’s tough to tell. It depends on how many people are here for their own passports, if they have their paperwork and documents in order, and how quickly we get through everyone” would’ve been helpful. A clipped “no idea!” isn’t great PR for the Postal Service. But they’re the only game in town when it comes to affordably(ish) obtaining a passport — so they don’t need to care, do they?
There’s no public restroom. My wife and daughter walked to a Taco Bell down the street to use their facilities — and buy some churros, chips, water, and a god-awful slushie that my daughter loved. Then we waited some more.
Oh, it was 95 degrees that day. Monsoonal air also decided to show up, too. That brought humidity. We waited some more.
We finally got inside at 2:00 PM — five hours since we started waiting in line. Can you guess what we got to do then?
If you guessed “Wait some more,” then you win!
When I heard the term “Mega Passport Center,” I envisioned something like a giant room filled with agents. Kind of like an airport check-in or box office outside a major stadium.
Here’s the “mega” passport center.
We were eventually helped by a great USPS rep named Aja. (The USPS should have her outside answering questions…) The interview (for lack of a better term) took about 11 minutes. She spent most of that time reviewing our documents, asking us a few questions, having us sign a few things, and then her dealing with printing issues (more on that next paragraph). Easy peasy.
We finally left just after 3:00 PM. All said and done, that’s how long the flight from Boston to Paris takes.
For those applying for a passport (or their child’s), I can’t stress this enough: have everything filled out, correct, and ready.
- Some passport centers have photo facilities — but those images cost about $15. And you’re at the mercy of the USPS’ printers working. (You’ll never guess what happened when we were there. If you said, “Their printers went down,” you’re the big winner.) Seriously, find someplace where you can get your picture taken ahead of time. (I drive past a CVS or Walgreens or mailbox-shipping business or FedEx Office almost daily.)
- Fill out your passport application online and print it out.
- Bring a debit card or checkbook (gasp!)
- Get certified copies of your birth certificate if you don’t yet. As soon as you finish reading this post. You’ll need to present one as well as a photocopy. It’s a good idea to have a couple on hand anyway.
We saw people who weren’t prepared — or who made mistakes on their DS-11 forms. They had to start all over.
My daughter will be 11 when her passport expires. (Passports for kids under 16 are valid for only five years.) I already have a reminder in my calendar to get her a renewal.
We brought water, tablets, phones, and some snacks — all of which were depleted of power by the time we left. My daughter was a true champ and exceptionally patient. But she also knows that a passport is key to seeing the world. And she’s so excited to use it — and we’re all eager to travel abroad as a family.
Late Bird Gets the Worm?
Here’s where it gets interesting. The line dwindled to maybe a 1-2 hour wait when we left. We visited a family friend the next day; she heard mid-late afternoon is a great time to go because everyone else goes in the morning and stands in line forever.
That said, we read about and heard of people who tried that approach — only to be greeted with a “Sorry, we’re not taking any more walk-ins today” after waiting in line.
Why Did We Wait So Long to Get Our Child a Passport?
Most of our delay was intentional.
We didn’t plan to travel internationally with our daughter until she was older. None of our relatives (at least, close ones) live outside the United States. There was no immediate “need” to visit family abroad.
We also want her to be old enough to remember her international travels. Traveling is always something special. But international trips are extra special.
My wife and I could’ve taken her somewhere when she was younger. But she wouldn’t have remembered. And sharing memories is part of the fun. Instead, we focused on traveling to family and friends domestically; she formed amazing relationships during those trips.
We’ve since learned our daughter possesses an amazing memory. That’s something fantastic and, well, not so much. (“Hey, Dad, remember that one time you said…”)
What to Bring
If you’re like us and brave the passport walk-in line, might I suggest you bring:
- Water, water, water
- Something to eat
- WiFi hotspot
- Portable battery charger
- USB cord(s) for said charger
- Black pen in case you notice an error on your forms and need to start over
After no available appointments and waiting in the California summer weather for five hours (before waiting inside for a while), our daughter is finally en route to holding her very own passport. She wants to go to London (because Peppa Pig, of course. And the Queen. Hey, I tried telling her.) and Paris (Eiffel Tower, natch). And Australia. And anywhere she can see sites, meet fellow kids, and learn about the world.
Should we have gotten her passport earlier? Yes. For our plans, we’re about a year or so late.
But we’re quite excited. There’s a fun excitement in the air now that we can start looking at international trips.
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