If you're planning a summer getaway outside of the country, make sure you get your paperwork in order sooner rather than later.
Passports are in "unprecedented demand," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday during a House Appropriations subcommittee budget hearing. In 2022, the State Department issued a record 22 million passports — and 2023 is "on track to break" that record, Blinken said.
The U.S. State Department is fielding half a million passport applications a week, Blinken said. "That's 30 to 40% above last year, so it's dramatic."
The standard processing time for a passport is 10-13 weeks, and an expedited request takes about seven to nine weeks. That doesn't include mailing time, which can take up to two weeks each way.
"Processing times fluctuate throughout the year depending on demand and we anticipate that they will rise, especially as we approach the busier travel season," according to a State Department news release.
During the pandemic, "demand went way down," Blinken said, and the department pulled back the number of staff dedicated to processing passport and visa requests. "Emerging from COVID, we've had to build back."
He said the State Department has hired more staff, authorized overtime and opened satellite offices to process passport applications more quickly.
As pandemic restrictions eased, travel ramped up, with 52% of Americans planning to travel in the next six months, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Travel spending and demand for flights are both higher than 2019's pre-pandemic levels.
Demand used to be cyclical, with a busy season starting in March and ending in late summer, Blinken said, but now it's consistently high.
Americans who already have a passport soon will be able to renew it online. The department halted a pilot program "to make sure that we can fine-tune it and improve it before we roll it out in a bigger way," Blinken said, but "65% of renewal customers for passports will be able to do so online, once this program is fully up and running."
For those looking to travel to the U.S., the median wait time for visitor visa interview appointments is about two months, half as long as a year ago, and it's shorter in many parts of the world. Blinken said the department is prioritizing visas with economic impact, like those for students, temporary workers and business travelers.
"In category after category, we're actually getting back to and even better than pre-pandemic levels," Blinken said, touting the fact that so far in fiscal year 2023, the department has issued 18% more non-immigrant visas than the same period in fiscal year 2019.
Immigrant visas "are a whole other issue," Blinken said.