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Need passport renewal? Possible government shutdown could slow process.

Planning to travel to Belize this winter? When was the last time you checked your passport renewal date? If your passport is set to expire in a year or less, you really should take action now to renew your passport. It’s easy if you do it early (see our handy checklist below). If you wait until the last minute, it can add cost, hassle and worry.

It’s only easy though, if everything at the passport processing center is running normally. If a government shutdown were to happen while you were trying to get your passport renewed, it could mean you might not be able to leave the country at all, and could forfeit expensive pre-paid tour packages and air tickets as a result.

Sound a bit over the top? Believe it or not, we’ve actually had at least one person who was two days late to his Adventure Island vacation due to a late passport renewal. And back in 1995 – the last time the government experienced a bonefide shutdown – we had several guests, if memory serves, whose departure for Belize became a complicated and nerve-wracking mess with near tragic consequences due to tardy passport renewals and the shutdown.

The New York TimesNPR, The Washington Post, and Huffington Post have been covering the upcoming Oct. 1 budget deadline, sounding alarms about a possible government shutdown. There are striking similarities between our current situation and that which led up to the actual shutdown in 1995.

On Nov. 14, 1995, major portions of the US federal government suspended operations as the result of deadlocked budget negotiations between Republicans and Democrats. According to a 2010 Congressional Research Service report the shutdown impacted all sectors of the economy and slowed or stopped operations in many branches of government, including causing 200,000 passport applications per day to go unprocessed.

Health and welfare services for military veterans were curtailed; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stopped disease surveillance; new clinical research patients were not accepted at the National Institutes of Health; and toxic waste clean-up work at 609 sites was halted. Other impacts included: the closure of 368 National Park sites resulted in the loss of some seven million visitors; U.S. tourism and airline industries incurred millions of dollars in losses; more than 20% of federal contracts, representing $3.7 billion in spending, were affected adversely.

So, do you really need to worry if your passport is coming up for renewal? The US State Department currently states that normal passport renewal applications take 4-6 weeks. Expedited applications (for those willing to pay an extra $60 on top of the regular fees) take 2-3 weeks.

How to renew your passport:

1. Use the online passport form wizard to find the correct form for your situation and fill it out. It also helps you estimate the correct fee, print the filled out form and shows you where to send it.

2. Get a new headshot, which you can take yourself with your smart phone if you have one. Just be sure it meets these requirements:

  • In color
  • Printed on photo quality paper
  • 2 x 2 inches (51 x 51 mm) in size
  • Sized such that the head is between 1 inch and 1 3/8 inches (between 25 and 35 mm) from the bottom of the chin to the top of the head. View their Photo Composition Template for more size requirement details.
  • Taken within the last 6 months to reflect your current appearance
  • Taken in front of a plain white or off-white background
  • Taken in full-face view directly facing the camera
  • With a neutral facial expression and both eyes open
  • Taken in clothing that you normally wear on a daily basis:

They even have their own online photo-cropping tool if you have an existing photo of yourself that you think could be modified to meet their standards.

Take my word for it, I remember the panicked voices on the phone during the last shutdown. If you are going to Belize this winter, don’t wait to get your new or renewed passport! And be sure to buy trip insurance just in case!