|A trip to Jamaica was almost foiled for me and my traveling companion, but the Internet helped speed us through travel-related bureaucracy.|
When I began writing this article, I had no idea that I would very shortly require the services of one of the companies whose site I had visited. It happened on my way to the island of Jamaica, where I was to spend 6 days and 5 nights.
To make a long story short, my traveling companion and I arrived at the airport only to be denied entry to the plane because my friend did not have the proper identification. Jamaica does not require passports—you can enter with a birth certificate and state-issued photo identification. She does not have a driver’s license and they deemed all the identification she showed them unacceptable.
A non-driver’s license would take 3 weeks, and she did not have a passport. And anyone who has applied for a passport can tell you that, in general, it takes 6-8 weeks to get one. After useless pleading and crying, there was only one way to salvage our trip—attempt to push all our reservations over one day and enlist the help of an express passport service.
There are several online services to choose from, all in the business of expediting passports. Most of these companies process visa requests as well, though a few do not.
How this works is that you pay the company a fee to process your paperwork and put it through to the U.S. Passport Bureau, which gives it priority treatment. The passport bureau is very particular about how the paperwork should be done — a procedure must be followed, which all the sites adhere to. The sites explain in detail what information you must submit and in what manner. At the end of this article, you will find a list of several sites.
Prices vary, but not widely. For example, the cost for a new adult passport is in the $125-150 range for “urgent” processing (1-2 days), $80-140 for “rush” (2-4 days) and $50-80 for “regular” (4-8 days). One company, Abriggs.com, claims to have the lowest prices on the Internet (and do, as far as I was able to determine) at $120/$70/$45, respectively. Samspassports.com has lower prices ($100/$50/$45), but the quickest time is 2-3 days. Sometimes you can find deals. As of this writing, Global Passport and Visa Services (www.globalpassport.com) had a two-for-one sale: $75 off with two or more passports; and Samspassports.com offers discounts on four or more passports.
Two points to keep in mind: One is that these prices do not include government fees for the documents; these are only the service fees that the companies charge for expediting the paperwork. The government charges its own fees (would it be any other way?) of $145 total for new passports. (I say “total” because the fees are actually separated into two parts and require two separate checks or money orders.)
The other thing to remember is that unless you pay for the urgent or rush services, it takes a while to receive your documents. Yes, regular service promises 6-8 days but this is for processing—it does not include delivery time, which can be an additional 10 to 12 days.
In the end, it could very easily be a month before you see your passport. If you have that much time to wait, you don’t need them. If, indeed, you are traveling soon and need your passport in less than a month, then it is worth the money to go urgent or rush for peace of mind. In fact, some of these companies have only urgent and rush services to begin with. Some have guaranteed 24-hour turnaround time. Just make sure to determine whether they mean 24-hour processing time or if delivery time is included in this timeframe. Some of these sites have physical offices where you can pick up your passport. If you can find one near you, that will cut delivery time. In my friend’s case, she had a passport in her hand the same day.
One caveat to all this: The U.S. Passport Bureau is not keen on expediting passports for people who just feel like getting one fast. This is especially true with the heightened security after September 11. You must prove that you urgently need one, that your trip is booked and scheduled within a certain amount of time (48 hours for urgent service). Be prepared to show airline tickets or your itinerary, which can simply be the e-mail confirmation from your airline. Otherwise, your application will not be processed.
Some sites are more motivated than others. Oddly, there will be companies that cannot service you in the timeframe you need. One company was able to finally help my friend out (www.deluxepassportexpress.com) but another told her that it was booked and could do nothing for her (www.passportsplus.com), which tells me that just because they are there, it doesn’t mean they will help you. You may have to shop around.
Another document that many of these sites claim you can get through them is your birth certificate. This is not always true. In many cases, you still have to obtain a birth certificate on your own while it merely provides a link to a processing site, such as www.vitalchek.com.
Vitalchek.com places the order for your birth certificate from whatever state agency holds it (in New York, it is the Department of Health). There is no extra fee for this, except a shipping charge, the cost of which depends on whether you want it sent regular mail or FedEx. Some companies will put in the request for you for a fee (generally around $40) in addition to your state’s fees. This is completely unnecessary—if you are filling out a form online anyway, why not do it directly with your state’s agency or with Vitalchek.com? Why fork over a fee just to have someone else forward the forms? (In New York, for example, the state fee is $15; with regular shipping, it’s $20.50 and with FedEx it is $33, which is still cheaper than paying one of these guys their processing fee.)
If you are truly in a hurry for it, go down to your town or city hall and get the document yourself. You will save on ridiculous shipping costs and you will get it on the spot. When you think about it, paying an $18 shipping fee for a piece of paper that can be gotten easily and instantly is quite absurd.
Even though some of these companies claim to be in business 10, 20, even 30 years, these services are being newly discovered by many, thanks to the Internet. Reputation may be an obscurity for these guys, so if you want credentials, look for their affiliations. Some endorsements to look for are the Better Business Bureau, American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), Netcheck Commerce Bureau, American Tourism Society, and the United Sates Travel Association (USTA).
Government information regarding travel in foreign countries can be found at these sites. It includes restrictions and advisories, health and vaccination updates, and country-by-country customs and immigration requirements.
Many sites also have links to other travel-related sites, such as currency exchanges, consulates, cultural information, travel agents, hotel sites, car rentals, and cruise sites. Where available, order tracking is helpful. (Actually, if you are the anxious type, this may be a bad thing—checking the status of your application every 5 minutes and finding that nothing has changed may prove disturbing.)
If you are going to be driving in a foreign country, an international driver’s permit (IDP) may be required. In fact, more than 40 countries require an IDP to rent a car. An IDP is valid for 1 year from date of issuance. A few sites that will apply for one on your behalf are Passport and Visa Specialists (www.quickpassports.com), US Passport & Visa (www.us-passport-visa.com), Travel the World Visa (www.world-visa.com), Texas Tower (www.texastower.net), and CIBT, Inc. (www.cibt.com).
A few sites have extended services to meet some other needs of travelers. Both Travisa.com and Zvs.com have travel stores, where you can purchase passport holders, converter kits, translators, travel organizers, hanging pouches, and so on.
Travel insurance is another concern for travelers and it is routinely recommended in case of illness or injury. Four sites that sell travel insurance (or gather quotes for you) are Traveldocs.com, Passportvisaexpress.com, Travisa.com, and Zvs.com.
Communication with family and business associates is often necessary. For most of us, cell phones do not work internationally. That’s where global cell phone rentals come in. World-Visa.com, Traveldocs.com and Cibt.com sell global cell phones. Zvs.com and Travisa.com sell international calling cards.
Passportvisaexpress.com offers a perk to those in the travel industry. It has an affiliate program, which can mean commissions and bonuses for travel agents, tour operators, and travel products suppliers.
In the end, my friend and I were very grateful that express passport services existed. You can go directly to the U.S. Passport Bureau and expedite your own passport, but believe me, after you’ve completed the first several steps, you won’t want to go any further. Pass the torch to the next person in the relay and let them take it from there. They do it all the time and know the ins and outs of the whole deal. It’s worth the fee. How else could my friend have gotten her passport in 6 hours?
Roberta Roberti is a freelance writer who has written more than 25articles for various publications. You can find links to some of themat her web site (www.rroberti-writer.com).