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How a U.S. Government Shutdown Affects Passport Applications

A picture of the U.S. Capitol Building with a "Sorry We're Closed" sign hanging on it due to a federal government shutdown

A government shutdown in the United States can have far-reaching effects, impacting various sectors and services. One such service that might be affected is the processing of passport applications. If you are a U.S. citizen who needs a new passport, a passport renewal, or a passport for a minor, here’s what you need to know about how a federal government shutdown could impact your plans.

What is a Government Shutdown?

A government shutdown occurs when Congress fails to pass an appropriations bill (commonly referred to as a budget) or the President refuses to sign one that has been passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. This is a piece of legislation that funds the federal government operations and agencies.

In the event of a shutdown, non-essential services are paused, and only “essential” services continue to operate. The impact on various services, including passport applications, depends on whether these services are deemed essential or non-essential.

The definition of an “essential service” can change from shutdown to shutdown. There have been 20 shutdowns over the past 40 years, and each one has had its own unique causes and effects. As such, there is no definitive answer as to whether a shutdown will or will not impact a particular service, like issuing passports. That said, history shows that passports will likely continue to be issued.

How Previous U.S. Government Shutdowns Impacted Passport Applications

Historically, passport services have been classified as essential during government shutdowns. Furthermore, passport processing is covered by external fees charged to applicants, not budget appropriations negotiated by Congress. This means that despite a shutdown, passport applications were still accepted, processed, and issued to travelers.

During the longest government shutdown in U.S. history that lasted 35 days from December 2018 to January 2019, passport services continued as they were funded by application fees.

However, depending on the length and nature of the shutdown and the specific circumstances, there could certainly be delays in processing times. For instance, passport acceptance facilities and processing centers that are housed in federal buildings that are closed during a shutdown may not be available to process applications until the shutdown ends.

Furthermore, administrative furloughs can lead to a decrease in staffing at national passport centers, which, in turn, could translate to longer waiting times for routine passport applications and renewals.

The worst-case scenario happened during the 1995-1996 government shutdown, when passport processing was halted altogether. Hundreds of thousands of passport applications were submitted, but not processed. This is a rare example, but proof that getting a passport during a shutdown is not guaranteed.

Latest Guidance from U.S. Government

There is no telling when or if the next government shutdown will happen. That said, the United States is currently operating without a full appropriations bill in place, so there is a chance that a failure of Congress to reach a budget agreement could result in a shutdown.

As of October 2, 2023, the U.S. Department of State was processing routine applications in 8-11 weeks and expedited applications in 5-7 weeks. However, these processing times do not include mailing times. In these conditions, it may take up to 2 weeks for applications to arrive by mail at a passport agency or center, and up to 2 weeks for you to receive a completed passport in the mail after it is printed.

Travelers should be prepared that a shutdown would likely lead to these times increasing.

Thankfully, the United States Postal Service (USPS) is considered an essential service during a federal shutdown, so while there is always the possibility for delays, renewal applications will still be able to be mailed to the U.S. Department of State and newly-issued  passports will be able to be mailed to citizens.

Using Passport Expediting Services

In uncertain times like these, using a passport expediting service can be particularly helpful. These travel document professionals help travelers like you navigate getting a passport while also simplifying your application process and making it more stress-free.

In certain circumstances they can help expedite your U.S. passport so you have it in days instead of months.

For more on these services, what they do, and how they can help reduce the wait and the stress associated with getting a passport or renewing a passport quickly, check out our Ultimate Guide to Passport Expeditors.

Conclusion

While a government shutdown can cause concern for those needing to apply for or renew their passports, it’s important to remember that historically, passport services have continued during these periods. However, potential delays are possible depending on the length of the shutdown and other specific circumstances.

Stay informed about the current situation and consider using an expedited service if you’re in a hurry. Always plan ahead and apply for your passport well in advance of any planned international travel to avoid last-minute issues.

Remember: Safe and stress-free travel requires preparation. Stay informed, plan ahead, and you’ll navigate through any situation smoothly.

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About the Author: For over 20 years, the U.S. Passport Service Guide team has helped hundreds of thousands of travelers with their travel document questions and shared advice about how to make traveling abroad simpler, safer, and more enjoyable.

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