As an American immigration lawyer, I rarely have occasion to comment on  policies and procedures that could affect US citizens traveling abroad. However, recent news out of the Department of State’s passport office seems important enough to share.

You may have noticed that laws for travel throughout the western hemisphere have changed dramatically over the last decade. Where a trip to Mexico or a Caribbean cruise required a US citizen to carry no more than a driver’s license or birth certificate, travelers are now required to show US passports when traveling to and from most foreign destinations.  The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative has been a major player in the modification of travel document requirements. The passport office now handles roughly 15 million applications per year.  However, the passport office estimates that only one-third of Americans have valid passports.

Passport Day in the USA  is March 27, 2010. On that Saturday in late March, all of the regional passport agencies will have extended Saturday hours, will accept walk-ins, and will not require proof of imminent travel plans.  Further, post office acceptance facilities will extend hours to accommodate applicants. Last year, Passport Day generated over 50,000 new passport applications.  This year, the threat of an increase in passport fees may generate even more interest in Passport Day services.

Obtaining a US passport to comply with travel requirements can be both a time-consuming and costly adventure, depending upon how quickly one needs to travel. Processing fees range from around $100 to several hundred dollars, depending on the time line. On February 9, 2010, the State Department proposed increasing passport fees based on a cost of services study. The cost for normal processing of an adult passport application would increase 35% to $135. Officials predict the increase will likely go into effect in or around April 2010. Officials cite advances in security, anti-fraud and anti-counterfeit measurements when justifying the rather large increase.