You may have seen the flurry of publicity about the proposed new passport application a form almost impossible to complete without the aid of Ancestry.com and a private detective. Although the form is, in fact, a nightmare, the good news is that very few of you will ever have to deal with it. Nevertheless, even without the new form, getting your first passport can be tough, and it's getting tougher all the time. Unless you're absolutely sure you'll never want to leave the United States during the remainder of your lifetime, apply now.
The new form really is a nightmare -- out of Kafka by way of Dr Strangelove, a bureaucrat's dream. It asks for:
*Name, date and place of birth, and citizenship for yourself, parents/stepparents, all siblings and all children.
*Street address, city, state, ZIP code and time of residence for every place you have lived since birth.
*Company name, address, dates of employment, supervisor and phone number for every place you have ever worked.
*Name, address and dates of attendance for every school you have ever attended.
*And lots more even more obscure stuff if you weren't born in a hospital.
Could you fill out such a form completely and accurately? I certainly couldn't. When I was a kid, there were no such things as ZIP codes or area codes. And much of the information for the form may not even be available any longer.
As far as I can tell, however, that form will not become a new standard. A State Department spokesperson assured me that it would be used only in those rare cases where an applicant cannot produce the more typical documents, most notably a birth certificate from a U.S. hospital. The media frenzy seems to have been inspired more by shock value than by accuracy.
Nevertheless, you can't be sure you have what the passport agency needs until you apply. I suspect that if my wife were applying now, she would have to use the new form. She was born in a U.S. military hospital in the Philippines while her regular-Army-officer father served on MacArthur's staff, but the birth certificate from that military hospital didn't satisfy the agency. We finally dug up enough to make the agency happy, but it was a struggle.
A passport is now virtually a "must" for anyone who ever wants to fly anywhere outside the United States (to be fully accurate, anyone who wants to fly back into the United States after visiting any other country). If you drive to/from Canada, an enhanced driver's license from Michigan, New York, Vermont or Washington will be enough. And if you drive or cruise to/from Bermuda, Canada, the Caribbean, or Mexico, you can use a passport card. Anything more and you'll need a regular passport.
Certainly, some of the media and the public severely overreacted to the new form. But the passport agency is at least partially responsible for the flap -- it published the new form in the Federal Register without any notation about the circumstances in which it might be used.
Presumably, this story has a happy ending. Very few, if any, of you will ever see the nightmare form in question. But the larger lesson remains that you need a passport for almost all foreign trips, that you may encounter unexpected obstacles when you first apply, and that the application process could take a lot longer than you would expect. So unless you plan to stay home for the rest of your life, make sure you have a current passport. Even if your latest passport has expired, an old passport is usually enough to get you a new one without further hassle.