I have a dirty little secret to share. I made it around the sun 30 times before stopping to pick up a passport. For most of my adult life I could easily explain this away: “My airline doesn’t fly internationally.” Then came the May of 2011 announcement that Southwest would acquire AirTran, and as a result would become an international carrier. Fast forward a few years and AirTran had been fully integrated into Southwest, yet I was still without a magic blue book. What seemed to be my last valid excuse (aside from pure laziness) was gone. It was time to join the majority of my AvGeek brethren (and 35% of the U.S. population) in securing a passport.
At a dinner with fellow AvGeeks, a friend of mine who recently interned with an airline in Chicago mentioned that he had applied for, and received, a same-day passport in downtown Chicago just hours before he took his first non-rev trip abroad. I was intrigued. I had discovered a way to make a task I had put off for years more interesting than filling out paperwork and sitting around for weeks waiting for a response. Not only that, I now had a completely valid excuse to board a LUV bird to jet up to Chicago for a day trip. I was fully on board for a same-day passport challenge.
Same-day passport process
The process of applying for a same-day passport at a Passport Agency is, as one might expect, nearly the same as applying for one via a Passport Application Acceptance Facility. Minus the delays and the possibility of the mail service losing sensitive documents.
To apply for a U.S. passport, one must provide the following:
- A completed (but not signed) DS-11 form (Application for a U.S. Passport)
- Evidence of U.S. citizenship (birth certificate, etc.)
- Current identification (prior passport, current driver’s license, military ID…)
- Front and back copies of all IDs
- Passport photo. Visit your corner drug store for a photo guaranteed to pass the particularly strict photo guidelines.
- A check for various fees. When applying for my same-day passport in-person, I was allowed to use my debit card; your experience may vary.
To apply for and receive a same-day passport, applicants must have an appointment as well as proof of immediate (within 14 days) upcoming international travel, or a letter from an employer indicating the possibility of last minute travel. Flying Porter Airlines has been on my AvGeek to-do list for some time now, so I booked a refundable ticket to Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport from Chicago Midway – refundable just in case my passport was declined, or as luck would have it, weather in Canada would take a turn for the worse.
Making an appointment
Amazingly, this was the hardest (or at least most annoying) part of the whole process. Appointments at passport agencies can be made no more than 14 days in advance. Additionally, appointments must be scheduled via a cumbersome, long-winded automated phone system. After navigating many menus deep I managed to reach the scheduling menu for the Chicago Passport Agency. At this level there are two options, hear the first appointment available or enter a special date. I made the mistake of asking for the first appointment available and having to listen to a lengthy informational disclaimer about requirements with each next available appointment selection.
Finally I found an appointment for 9 AM on a Friday, and confirmed. I’m not a fan of automated systems and this experience only affirmed my disdain. It took 25 minutes pressing numbers and listening to excruciatingly slow menus to perform something that would have taken under five minutes to do online. I digress…
Trekking from KC to downtown Chicago
To make my 9:00 AM appointment, I chose Southwest’s 5:15 AM departure from Kansas City, which sounded great at the time of booking. Then came the day I had to wake up at 2:30 AM to make my flight. That’s okay, it was an adventure, or at least that’s what I kept telling myself. While onboard my non-stop to Chicago, I took full advantage of Southwest’s signature LIFT coffee and arrived in Chicago fully caffeinated and ready for the day ahead.
Because Chicago’s passport agency is downtown, and I had heard Chicago has an excellent transit system, I decided against a rental car. I was excited and apprehensive for my first CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) experience. Thankfully for this public transit newbie, my destination was just a block from a stop fed by the line servicing Chicago Midway Airport.
Applying for my same-day passport in person
I arrived at the Kluczynski Federal Building a little after 8:00 AM, at which point I was informed by armed guards that I was too early. It turned out my 9:00 AM appointment coincided with the passport facility’s opening. I was sent to a waiting room and told to come back no earlier than 8:30. Upon returning I went through security screening similar to what one might expect going through the TSA pre-check line at an airport. A real contrast from their unarmed blue-shirt airport cohorts – These security personnel had personality and were generally upbeat.
Once through security I proceeded to the 18th floor. I stepped off the elevator to even more armed guards and was directed to a hallway with a line in front of the passport agency with, by my count, at least eighteen people waiting to enter. It was just after 8:30 now, and I started to wonder how long of an endeavor this would be. Minutes later the doors opened and we were admitted to the passport agency. I would have taken a photo except there was a strict no phones policy. With armed guards I wasn’t going to risk it. Picture a DMV with big dirty windows and a decent view.
I expected there would be an interview but there wasn’t. A representative behind a cloudy, thick plexiglass wall examined my paperwork and told me to have a seat. A few moments later another representative called my name and gave me a slip with instructions to pickup my passport no earlier than 1:00 PM. Was I approved? It wasn’t clear but I was optimistic. I walked out of the federal building at 9:07 AM. Typically, the words “efficiency” and “federal government” don’t belong in the same sentence. That said, credit where it’s due; this was a well oiled machine. The process was much quicker and easier than I would have expected.
Some time to kill in downtown Chicago
I caught an Uber to one of my favorite Chicago destinations: Millennium Park. With great views, free WiFi, and plenty of nearby food options, it’s an excellent venue for people watching, and to get some work done. It was a beautiful, albeit cold, day in Chicago. Little did I know there was a winter storm brewing in Toronto…
Same-day passport challenge: Success!
After some quality people-watching and a quick lunch I arrived back at the federal building at 12:40, twenty minutes prior to my pickup time. With another trip through security and quick walk to the pickup office, I inquired about my passport and was pleasantly surprised that it, along with my (optional) passport card, were ready. After signing a few papers I was provided a blue envelope with all of my documentation, my new passport, and passport card. I had successfully completed the same-day passport challenge.
Following a quick CTA ride back to Chicago Midway, I was ready for my trek to Toronto, but learned the weather there had taken a turn for the worse. Because Southwest does not have change fees (and because I wasn’t sure I was going to have success in getting my passport) I had preemptively booked a backup flight home which I planned to cancel prior to my Toronto flight. It had been a long day and with a weather delay which would likely lead to a cancellation of my Toronto flight, I decided to call that trip off. I boarded my flight back to KC instead and was home in time for dinner.
My same-day passport challenge was a fun and unique experience. The process was much easier than I expected and it gave me an opportunity for a mini adventure. Would it have been easier to simply fill out my application and apply in person at my local post office? Sure. But since when do AvGeeks take the easy way out? We look for excuses to travel, to have stories to tell, and to experience things in unique ways by taking the uncommon path. Why fly non-stop when you can connect a few times? Why wait on the mail when you can manufacture a trip instead?
I would most definitely recommend a same-day passport challenge (or passport renewal) to any of my AvGeek pals.
Note: Federal rules and guidelines change quite a bit. Check out the State Department’s Get a Passport in a Hurry page for up-to-date details and guidelines.