This year the U.S. State Department is on track to issue 17 million passports. Joan Sexton will finally get hers by Federal Express today, just a few hours before she’s scheduled to fly to Europe.
Sexton, 62, will travel outside the country for the first time in her life. She’s headed to Germany and Italy to see castles and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It should be an exciting change of scenery for a woman who has spent most of her life in Boone County, and she hopes it will help take her mind off the loss of her husband, who died in November.
But the past several weeks were excruciating for her as she worried whether her passport would arrive on time. She and her daughter, Cindy Leaton, have been hounding the State Department for weeks with little response.
Sexton thought she had plenty of time when she applied for a passport on March 9. As late as Monday morning, she was still sweating it.
“It’s horrible,” she said before learning Monday afternoon that her passport was on its way. “I’m a nervous wreck.”
Sexton, like millions of other Americans, was affected by delays caused by the “high volume” of passport applications that have flooded the State Department in recent months. Requests are up 33 percent from last year, according to
the State Department Web site.
“This is in response to more Americans wanting to travel overseas,” said Steve Royster, a State Department spokesman. “Our job, and our mission, is to get Americans passports in time for their travel.”
The Department of Homeland Security has also begun requiring Americans to have passports before they travel to Latin American, Canada and the Caribbean.
Royster said the State Department has tried to meet increased demand by hiring an additional 280 adjudicators since 2004, bringing the total number to 700 nationwide. It has also opened a new center in Hot Springs, Ark., that Royster said should eventually process 10 million applications a year. It is currently in a “pilot operations” phase.
Yet for those who want to travel now, the going remains slow. With turnaround times of 10 to 12 weeks for standard applications and two to three weeks for expedited ones, travelers have to be on top of their game.
Sexton was originally told to expect her passport on May 21, and Leaton on May 15. They’re scheduled to arrive today, about two weeks and three weeks behind schedule, respectively.
“If I knew that it was going to take this long, I would have expedited the application when it was sent off,” Sexton said.
Sexton and Leaton said they also had nothing but trouble with automated and staffed telephone systems set up by the State Department to answer applicants’ questions. They told of dialing information lines repeatedly and getting no response, being unable to get real people on the phone even after days of effort and being put on hold indefinitely.
“That’s what we thought the phones were for — to get answers,” Leaton said. “But all they seem to do is get people upset, and it’s ridiculous.”
The department also offers a tracking tool that allows people to check the status of their applications online. But the service is experiencing delays, and “it is taking up to one week for expedited applications and up to four weeks for routine applications to be tracked online,” according to the State Department Web site.
Sexton said she checked the Web site several times a week.
“All it does is give you an ID number and says, ‘Your passport is currently being processed,’ ” Sexton said. “It has said the same thing since the second week of May.”
The department tries to impress upon the public the need for early passport applications. Its Web site advises Americans interested in overseas travel to apply “at least 12 weeks” before their travel time. The earlier, the better.
“If someone is planning an international Labor Day trip, they should start (the passport process) now,” Royster said. “They can apply at post offices or other places around the country.”