Trust me. This is something you do not want to do. Be a smart chap and check the country passport requirements with the U.S. state department well in advance of any international trips. However, if you want to be like me and live on the edge, this info may come in handy.

The backstory: when I was initially planning our trip this summer to France, Italy, and Ireland, I looked up the visa and passport info that applied to the area we are visiting. A cursory glance told me that France and Italy were both part of the ‘Schengen Area’ and that we needed 3 months remaining on our passports from the date we were departing from those countries. Ireland’s requirements were even more lax. Easy enough. My current passport expired in November, so it would be valid. I would just plan to immediately renew when we returned home.

Fast forward to the day before we are leaving for the Bay Area, and two days before our flight takes off for Nice, France. Per my dad’s suggestion, I was writing down the emergency contact info for the U.S. consulates in the various areas we would be visiting. When I reviewed the info for Italy, I noticed that the state department information said that a U.S. passport must have six months remaining when I entered the country! Panic. Is this correct? When did things change? I investigated further, and some sources were now even saying France requires six months! Who do I believe?! This could potentially ruin our entire vacation.

Here are the mistakes I made: First, I should have looked at the actual state department info for each country, not just the Schengen area. Second, while the Schengen Area requirements apply to all countries that adhere to the agreement, each also get to add their own extra requirements. This is just plain confusing, but it is completely valid. So Italy can require 6 months remaining on your passport on entry, and also require 3 months remaining from the planned date of departure. Third, I should have simply renewed early. I had plenty of time. Countries are able to change their requirements at any time, so it is better to be safe than sorry.

Passport in hand. You can get a passport in one day.

Avoid the hassle I went through by renewing your passport early. Image courtesy of Stanwood, WA.

I called the state department to confirm my findings, and they basically said yes, I would be in trouble if I tried to enter Italy, but France should be fine (contrary to other sources). The confirmed the 3 month window I saw posted on their website.

I quickly assessed my options: A) we could try to get on the plane to Nice and then cross the border into Italy by train, hoping they don’t ask for my passport (possible within the EU). There might be problems getting on the plane to Ireland from Italy, however. It would also technically be illegal. B) We could fly to Nice, spend our first six days as planned, and re-plan the middle portion of the trip. We would eat about $600 in travel costs and incur some more. C) We could call the trip off completely, eating about $600 in travel costs and a couple free hotel nights. After all the work we had put into planning the trip, this sounded downright depressing. D) I could see if I could get a new passport in less than 24 hours.

Option D, while it was on the table, was something I wanted to try. It was Thursday evening when I discovered my predicament, and the passport center was open the following day, Friday, June 1. I called into the automated system and tried to book an appointment, but the earliest date it gave me was July 12. Scratch the appointment idea. It was after hours (service agents are available 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. eastern), so there wasn’t much more I could do that night. I went to bed anxious and upset that my oversight may spoil the entire plan we made.

How I got a passport in one day

Waking up early, I picked up my phone and immediately called the state department. I finally got a live human who told me that, yes, there were definitely no appointments available, and my only option was to get to the passport agency office in San Francisco before 1:30 p.m. where I would hopefully be admitted as a walk in. Walk-in hours are officially 8:30-1:30, so I might be turned away if I was late. But it was still a shot to get a passport in one day.

The call ended just after 6:30 a.m., and San Francisco is a solid 5 hour drive. My wife and I were still packing, so I ended up heading out the door without her. Our day that was supposed to include a casual drive to the Bay, then dinner out for our anniversary, and all of that was thrown out the window. We would have to make it up as we went.

I was immediately grateful that I had given us an extra day in the Bay Area. We could have been traveling Saturday instead of Friday, and the passport center would have been closed. It was also incredibly fortunate that I had picked up the rental car the evening before. Our old van would have otherwise been the only option. But now I had a real chance. With barely two hours of leeway, I could hopefully get to the passport center and convince them to produce a passport for me by the end of the day.

sf_state_dept

The Federal building in SF: the passport agency is on the 3rd floor. Image courtesy of the State Dept.

The drive went quickly (no I didn’t drive 80 mph) and traffic was minimal except through San Rafael. I stopped at Costco in Novato for passport photos, and made it to the San Francisco passport agency almost exactly at noon. With a swipe of my card, I maxed out the parking meter to 2 hours, and ran inside. The passport center is located on the 3rd floor of the government building at 450 Golden Gate Avenue near Civic Center in downtown San Francisco. By the time I arrived, the agent at the door said that they had admitted over 200 people without an appointment, and he was trying to turn away the lady in front of me. I started to panic inside.

When I explained my situation to the agent, he said that they had to let me in because I was traveling before they would be open again, and he ushered me inside. Merely 15 minutes later, I gave my already completed passport renewal form (DS-82) to the clerk, he looked it over, passed the papers back, and then assigned me a number. Although it was like being at the DMV on steroids, things were honestly looking up. I was hopeful that this actually meant I would get my passport that day.

When it took nearly 90 minutes for my number to be called, another level of stress was added as I remembered my parking meter quickly running out. I convinced myself that even if I got a parking ticket, this would still be worth it if I got a new passport. The lady who finally processed my application assured me that the passport would be finished around 3:30 that day and that I should return then. I was elated.

I returned to my car to find a mere 2 minutes remaining on the meter! The timing was that close. I added another 10 minutes to make a couple calls to figure out how my wife would get down to the Bay. Her mother was a complete heroine and offered to bring her down that evening so we could spend our anniversary together. We would miss out on much of what I had wanted to do in SF, but we would still be together, and I should have a passport in hand before the end of the day.

I returned to the passport agency after checking into the Handlery Hotel. When I arrived on the 3rd floor of the Phillip Burton Building, I couldn’t believe the mass of people I saw! There were at least a couple hundred. I quickly realized that everyone had been instructed to return at 3:30! Not just me! It was passport pickup time, and boy did they have a lot of them to process that day.

I had expected it to take 30 minutes at most to receive my passport, but it ended up taking nearly an hour and a half. But I got it! Before I left, I checked it over to make sure that my name and info hadn’t been messed up. My paranoia was so strong I must have checked the thing at least 5 times. But it looked good, and I headed out with a great sense of relief. Our vacation was saved, and I could sleep well that night.

The rest of the day was spent in traffic, having dinner with my wife and mother-in-law (what an anniversary treat), and then returning to San Francisco. With new passport in hand, we were 36 hours from beginning our rescued vacation. Everything was right again.

I sincerely hope you never need to use this information. This was one of the most stressful days of my life, and I suggest that you don’t repeat my mistakes. But it is good to know that it is possible to get a passport in one day!