Working to Improve the U.S. Passport Process

USAGov teamed up with the Department of State to find out ways to improve the passport application and renewal processes by asking the people who know best: their customers!  We reached out in December of 2016 to visitors to USA.gov, Travel.State.Gov, and USPS.com, as well as our social media followers and email subscribers.

We asked, "The U.S. Department of State wants to improve your experience of applying for or renewing a U.S. passport. How can we improve the application process to make it simpler and easier?"

Over 900 people gave their suggestions via an online "suggestion box".  They also commented upon and upvoted each other's suggestions. Participants received emails with notifications when milestones were achieved during the project. As a result, they were also able to come back later to help us group all of these suggestions into the insights that you will find here.  

The Department of State reviewed the fantastic recommendations from the public.  After careful consideration, the Department of State responded to each recommendation with a course of action that they will take.

These are the public's recommendations and the Department of State's responses.  If you have any questions about the process that we used to collaborate with the American people on this research, please contact USAGov.

Online Applications and Renewals

The Public Said --

An online process would be much easier and more convenient. People have lots of ideas about this, such as--

  • Allowing multiple forms of online payment like credit and debit cards.
  • Getting updates on the status of applications
  • Taking passport photos and getting an immediate accuracy check
  • User accounts that let you save your progress and complete an application over time
  • And many more…

The Department of State's Decision --

We’re working to roll out an online passport renewal form to make the end-to-end application process easier.  We believe it will reduce the burden on customers who must mail renewal forms to us.  The beta test will be limited to customers who are applying for routine service in the United States or Canada, are older than 18, and don’t require a name change among other requirements.  After creating a user account, the online system will allow customers to enter their info (save changes and return to them later), upload a .JPG file of their passport photo, and pay using a debit or credit card (through pay.gov) before submitting their application.  When customers have a delay with their application, they will receive an email asking them to log-in to their account to address the issue.  In the future, we plan to roll out an expanded version of this form after making tweaks and improvements to better meet customers’ needs.

Save Time by Having Other Government Agencies Connect with the Passport Process

The Public Said --

Applicants have already taken the time to provide their personally identifying information and other data with government agencies. Make the agencies share it with the Passport office.

The Department of State's Decision --

Customers submitting DS-11 forms (mainly first-timers and parents applying for their children) must provide multiple documents to establish their citizenship and identity.  Finding these documents and making photo copies of them takes time and effort.  For example, naturalized U.S. citizens must submit the original paper version of their naturalization certificate and those born in the U.S. must submit a certified paper version of their birth certificate as evidence of citizenship.  We are exploring ways to better connect with the federal and state agencies responsible for issuing these documents.  While we want to streamline the application process for more customers and reduce reliance on paper, we are heavily reliant on our outside partners to electronically share data with us.  We are always looking for ways to reduce the burden on our customers but we must remain vigilant in protecting the security of the application process and our customers’ personally identifiable information.

Remind Me When To Renew

The Public Said --

Notifying passport holders about the upcoming expiration of their passport by email, text or letter would help to prevent stressful (and more expensive) last-minute renewals. Pushing reminders would also help the State Department reduce the demand for processing at peak times of year, which can make the process faster for everyone.

The Department of State's Decision --

We want more customers to know that some countries require you to have at least 6 months validity remaining on your U.S. passport to enter.  We also want to remind parents that passports for their children under 16 are valid for 5 years, while passports are valid for 10 years for individuals over 16.  We are researching the development of a proactive notification system that automatically sends an email or SMS text as one way to ensure more of the 132+ million U.S. citizens who have valid passports are aware of pending expiration dates and don’t experience travel delays.  Since not all customers provide email addresses or phone numbers that accept SMS texts, we would also need to provide the options to receive a letter or a phone call.  In developing a proactive notification system, we think there is an opportunity to keep you better informed about the status of your passport application and remaining time until you receive your passport.

On-Demand Support

The Public Said --

Some people get lost in the renewing or applying processes, most often with first-time applications, which are complicated. On-demand support for customers -- whether at home or in person -- could help with quick answers to avoid frustration and delays. Online web chat is one possible way.

The Department of State's Decision --

Our National Passport Information Center is the main resource for customers who have questions about or get lost in the application process.  The Center has bilingual (English and Spanish) Customer Service Representatives available to speak with you on weekdays from 8 a.m. – 10 p.m. EST and new Saturday hours from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. EST.  We are also engaging more customers on social media through our @TravelGov Twitter and Facebook accounts.   Beyond increasing hours at our call center and ramping up social media engagement, we are considering options such as a virtual assistant (similar to Emma who acts as a bilingual guide to USCIS’ website).  We also plan to research the feasibility of live chat agents and chatbots to make it easier for you to get questions answered about how to apply and renew your passport.

Make It More Convenient To Apply In Person

The Public Said --

Some people have to apply in person, such as first time applicants, but it’s hard to do.

  • There should be more Acceptance Facilities, longer hours, and more appointment slots
  • A single online appointment system would make scheduling appointments easier

The Department of State's Decision --

We are aware that applying for a passport in-person takes time and effort and are committed to reducing the burden on the customer.  There are 7,400 passport application acceptance facilities across the country (such as post offices, libraries, and clerks of court), but understand that not all of these facilities are open after normal business hours and weekends when many families typically have time to apply.

We did survey research to understand why customers chose the acceptance facilities they did, and we found that flexibility is important.  Customers want the option to make an appointment, walk in, or go after normal business hours if needed.  We found that, among our partners, libraries have more flexible hours and offer walk in services which results in a positive customer experience.  As a result of the survey, we’ve designated an additional 300 libraries in the last year to serve as acceptance facilities.  We’ve also worked to open some of our busiest passport agencies past normal business hours on weekday evenings and Saturdays. 

In an effort to make it more convenient to apply at our 26 passport agencies open to the public, we launched an online appointment system so customers can go to travel.state.gov 24/7 and don’t have to call our National Passport Information Center.  Counter service at our agencies is limited to customers with urgent travel or visa needs. The online system will send you email confirmations and reminders about your appointment. For customers who make an appointment through the National Passport Information Center, we are calling these individuals to remind them about their appointments. In the future, we want to work with our partners to develop a unified appointment system between the 7,400 acceptance facilities and 26 agencies open to the public. 

More Choices for How to Renew or Apply

The Public Said --

Because everyone has different preferences and needs, offer more choices for how to apply or renew -- such as by mail, online, in-person, or even a combination of ways if it helps someone.

The Department of State's Decision --

We are working to open multiple channels for you to apply, renew, and resolve application issues.  As we seek to expand our digital services and launch an online passport renewal form, we realize that you may still prefer a paper form so we do not have any plans to eliminate this option.   This is a similar approach to the release of our online lost and stolen passport form in 2015.  We gave customers a 24/7 self-service option to report their passport lost or stolen on travel.state.gov and electronically submit the DS-64 form, but kept the options to complete the report in-person, by mail, or by calling the National Passport Information Center.  Looking into the future, we are exploring the possibility of expanding options for our first-time customers and parents applying for their child’s passport.  Today, these customers must appear in-person before an acceptance agent or a Department of State employee.  Collecting citizenship and ID evidence is a time consuming process for these customers.  Possible solutions include using interactive kiosk technology – to give the customer additional options on how they’d like to apply.  While we are working to explore more choices – especially digital choices – we must ensure the passport remains the gold standard for international travel documents through detailed review of each application.  We must continue to protect the national security and border security of the U.S. and carry out our dual mission of preventing fraud while delivering excellent customer service.

Easier-to-Understand Forms and Web Pages

The Public Said --

The instructions on the DS-forms and the website Travel.State.gov are just too hard to understand, which causes frustration, mistakes, and delays. Use plain and to-the-point language that makes what to do perfectly clear for everyone.

The Department of State's Decision --

We are overhauling Travel.State.Gov to make our instructions clearer for the 36 million annual visitors to our Passport Services webpages.  These updated pages will be better organized, use clear language, and include Frequently Asked Questions.  We rewrote about half of our pages already, and we’ll finish our makeover by the end of 2017.  We’re not stopping there, though. We will continually improve Travel.State.Gov based on the feedback we receive from our Foresee web surveys and National Passport Information Center.  We recently updated our main Department of State forms for first-time and renewal applicants.  These new forms will expire in 2019 and we will need to obtain Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approval for the new ones.  When we begin the process of updating our forms before 2019, we will strive to incorporate some of your feedback about making the forms easier to understand.

Reduce the Fees

The Public Said --

Fees for passport books and cards could be lowered to help make them affordable for everybody. For example,

  • Veterans
  • Older Americans
  • Families applying for multiple members
  • Early renewal applicants

The Department of State's Decision --

A U.S. passport can be an expensive purchase for many U.S. citizens.  To reduce the costs for U.S. citizens who frequently cross U.S. land and sea borders in the Western Hemisphere, we designed the U.S. passport card which costs $80 less than the book for a first-time adult applicant.  Just like the passport book, the card is valid for 10 years for adults.   However, the card is only valid for travel by land and sea to and from Mexico, Canada, Bermuda, and the Caribbean.  We and our partners will continue doing regular studies (known as Cost of Service Studies) to determine if the prices we’re charging you are fair and cover the costs of us providing services to you.  Recently, our partners at the U.S. Postal Service lowered the Overnight Delivery fee by more than $5 which benefits many of our customers.  Once we launch our online passport renewal form, many of our customers will be able to save additional postage fees.  We must continue to find ways to reduce costs – such as exploring the possibility of customers taking and submitting their own passport photos – and pass these savings on to you.

It's Already Simple and Easy

The Public Said --

Many had a great experience when applying for or renewing their passports.

The Department of State's Decision --

Hearing from many of our customers who are satisfied validates our work.  Thank you!  We know some of you love certain parts of the application process, while other parts are frustrating for you.  As we continuously improve the application process, we will focus on areas of frustration such as the inconvenience of making an appointment and the inability to apply online. 

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