One oft-forgotten rule of international travel is that many countries won’t allow you to enter if your passport‘s expiration date is less than six months away. It certainly was a rule that I forgot about until I was reminded by a cruise line that my European voyage next month would be null and void if I didn’t have a new passport number, even though I have a few months left to go on the old one.
Which meant I was in “your passport must be expedited” territory.
I assumed my Google search of “need to renew passport” would lead me straight to the State Department’s Web site. It didn’t. Instead, I ended up in the nether regions of a for-profit site called USPassportOnline.com. Clicking along obliviously — the Web site makes it somewhat but not overly clear that it’s not the official State Department site — I registered for the renewal. I checked off the box for the $45 nonrefundable fee even as a flickering in my brain began to suggest that perhaps this wasn’t where I intended to go.
It wasn’t until I started downloading the renewal forms that it twigged: This is a for-profit service with for-profit prices. US Passport Online passes along the State Department’s $170 official fee ($110 for the passport + $60 for expedited service) but then tacks on an additional $54 for processing, the aforementioned $45 nonrefundable reservation fee and $30 for shipping. And that was for service in 8 – 12 business days; charges rise steeply if your turn-around time is shorter. My bill totaled $299.
In contrast, the State Department charges $110 for the passport, $25 for processing, a mere $12.72 for overnight shipping and $60 for expediting — a grand total of $207.72, almost $100 less.
I don’t know about you, but spending nearly $100 extra for nothing special makes me cranky. And while I could have, and should have, paid closer attention while submitting my request, US Passport Online’s Web site, with its red, white and blue color scheme, really could be mistaken for the official “passport” site.
In a call to the company’s toll-free hotline, I expressed my dismay about the process, and the sales representative’s terse response led me to believe he fields a lot of these calls from frustrated travelers. I canceled the order. The kicker? In an e-mail confirming the cancellation, US Passport Online notes that the refund, minus the $45 cancellation fee, will take a jaw-dropping “12 – 15 business days from your cancellation date” to return to my coffers.
Was it all just a scam? Not necessarily. Using a for-profit expeditor makes good sense if you have a really challenging turn-around time (less than a week) or if you don’t live near a regional passport agency where you can apply in person. (See Passport and Visa Expeditors for more info.) But otherwise, there’s nothing easier or cheaper about using them over the State Department.
In checking out other expeditors for my not-quite-an-emergency needs, I noticed that CIBT.com at least didn’t use US Passport Online’s stars and stripes Web page design to confuse you into thinking it was part of the State Department’s passport services, but it still wasn’t terribly helpful; you have to go through the whole process of registering to find out what the fees are (or call its toll-free number and wait on hold; I hung up after 10 minutes). At G3 Visas & Passports, the pricing info is right up front and seemingly easy to access; my two-week expedite cost would have been $245, but there was no mention of special fees and, yes, you have to go through the registration process to find out what other costs there are.
Ultimately, I was most comfortable with simply going through the U.S. State Department’s passport renewal service. I made an appointment for my nearby office in Philadelphia, planned it around a lunch with an old friend and saved money in the bargain.
– written by Carolyn Spencer Brown