Passport application processing delays persist amid COVID-19 pandemic, number of passports issued in Oklahoma sees significant drop in 2020

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – The COVID-19 pandemic caused myriad service disruptions and delays, and while most services are relatively back to normal, obtaining a passport remains lengthier than it was prior to the pandemic.

“Despite progress with vaccination programs and the lifting of certain COVID-19 restrictions across the United States, the pandemic’s disruptions continue to have a ripple effect on our workload, including the amount of time it currently takes us to process a passport application,” a U.S. Department of State official told KFOR.

New passport and passport renewal applicants can expect to wait an average of 12-18 weeks, including shipping time, to receive their passport, according to the official.

“The 18-week timeframe includes up to 12 weeks for processing and 5 to 6 weeks for mailing times on the front and back end,” the State Department website says.

US Passport

Applicants who pay an extra $60 to expedite their application currently have to wait 6-12 weeks for their passport, depending on mailing processing time.

“The estimates of 12-18 weeks for routine applications and 6-12 weeks for expedited applications are expected maximum wait times. Most applicants will receive their passport sooner,” the State Department official said.

The COVID-19 pandemic essentially doubled the wait time for regular passport applications and more than doubled the wait time for expedited applications.

The standard waiting time for regular applications was 6-8 weeks prior to the pandemic, and 2-3 weeks for expedited applications, according to the official.

U.S. passport offices closed during the early phase of the pandemic in 2020 after the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs went into lockdown. The Bureau limited passport processing at passport agencies and offices to “life-or-death emergencies.” The backlog of regular passport applications swelled to massive proportions as the State Department received around 9,000 passport applications each day, according to a report provided to Congress in late May.

Delays in processing passport applications persisted even as the pandemic improved thanks to increasing COVID-19 vaccinations, prior to the emergence and rapid spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, according to the State Department official.

Passports issued in Oklahoma in 2020 decreased significantly from previous years. State Department data shows that 85,058 passports were issued in Oklahoma in 2020, 139,296 were issued in 2019, 147,331 were issued in 2018 and 158,915 were issued in 2017.

U.S. Senator Lankford of Oklahoma, accompanied by six other Republican senators, sent a letter on June 3, 2020, to then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, criticizing the State Department for a backlog of 1.6 million passport applications waiting to be processed. Lankford and the other senators blasted the State Department for being slow and inefficient.

“This is unacceptable and we urge you to reexamine this policy,” Lankford said in the letter.

There is still a substantial backlog of passport applications, Lankford said this past July..

Lankford said an increasing number of Oklahomans reported experiencing “tremendous delays” in their passport application being processed.

KFOR spoke with Lankford’s staff about the passport issue, asking for an interview with the Senator and for specific details regarding the number of complaints their office has received regarding delayed passport applications. An interview was not granted, but KFOR was directed to a statement from Lankford calling upon the State Department to address delays in the processing of Oklahomans’ passports.

Information included with Lankford’s July statement claimed the passport backlog has swelled since 2020 to an unprecedented 2.2 million applications with expected delays of 4-6 months.

“The State Department’s Passport Service is failing Oklahomans and our nation, and that needs to turn around right now,“ Lankford said in the July statement. “While many Oklahomans successfully worked remotely during the pandemic, passports sat unprocessed at the State Department for months. After I pushed to get passport processing up and moving again last year, Secretary Pompeo got it back on track. But under the Biden Administration, it’s worse than ever. Oklahomans now face months-long delays, despite paying more for expedited service. Many passport applicants have only heard ‘radio silence’ from the State Department on their expectations or questions, which has prohibited some Oklahomans from traveling. America is back to work. It is past time for the State Department to also get back to work.”

Approximately 1.5 to 2 million passport applications are currently in process, a State Department official told KFOR on Friday.

“The estimates of 12-18 weeks for routine applications and 6-12 weeks for expedited applications are expected maximum wait times. Most applicants will receive their passport sooner,” the official said.

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The State Department official told KFOR that work is being done to address continuing delays.

“We have taken several steps to address these challenges, including ensuring all our employees have access to vaccines, bringing back staff at our agencies, offering our staff overtime, temporarily assigning additional staff to passport adjudication and hiring additional contractors to surge processing capacity across the country,” the official said.

An emergency appointment can be made at a passport agency to obtain a passport more rapidly if a life-or-death emergency is involved.

An individual can qualify for a life-or-death emergency appointment if an immediate family member died, is dying or facing a life-threatening illness or injury while abroad, requiring the individual to travel outside the U.S. within 72 hours (three business days),” the State Department official said.

The following must be provided to make a life-or-death emergency appointment:

  • A passport application with supporting documents.   
  • Proof of the life-or-death emergency such as a death certificate, a statement from a mortuary, or a signed letter from a hospital or medical professional. Documents must be in English or professionally translated in English. 
  • Proof of international travel (e.g. reservation, ticket, itinerary) specific to the emergency. 

To schedule an appointment at a passport agency or center for a life-or-death emergency, call the National Passport Information Center at 1-877-487-2778 (1-888-874-7793 if using  Telecommunication Device for the Deaf), Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Central Time, except federal holidays. Call 202-647-4000 after 7 p.m. CT Monday through Friday, and on weekends and federal holidays.

Passport agencies are extremely limited in their ability to accommodate urgent, non-life-or-death travel within 72 hours, according to the official. Proof of travel is required for urgent, non-life-or-death travel. Call the National Passport Information Center at 1-877-487-2778 to make an appointment.

Passport adjudicators, who are essential to processing passports, cannot work from home; they must work within federal offices to process passports since passports are intended to be among the most secure documents a citizen will carry, according to the official.

“Given our current technology, they simply cannot be processed from home,” the official said. “Passport applications must be adjudicated onsite to help us safeguard customers’ personally identifiable information and ensure the integrity of the application process. We maintain the highest standards of security and privacy protection for our customers and must secure sensitive documents like birth certificates and naturalization certificates in our offices.  The physical printing and mailing of passport books and cards must occur within our facilities.”

Officials recommend applying for a passport at least six months ahead of planned travel to avoid last minute complications.

Individuals who do not have plans to travel abroad, but have a passport that will expire within a year, are encouraged to apply now by mail or at an acceptance facility, such as a post office or library.

Passport applicants can also spend an additional $60 for their application to be expedited.

The State Department works with thousands of passport acceptance facilities, including Post Offices and libraries.

Acceptance facilities across the nation have put on Passport Fairs to accept passport applications. The State Department launched a special passport acceptance fairs page to promote the events.

While there are no Passport Fairs scheduled in Oklahoma in either September or October, go to travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/News/passports/special-passport-acceptance-fairs.html to keep an eye on future events.

Go to travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/passports/how-apply/forms.html for passport application forms.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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