Staring in disbelief at my computer screen, I couldn’t comprehend what I read and reread. AIFS, my study abroad program provider, expected me to supply a passport copy to begin the visa process before the twelfth of October. It was the eleventh. Somehow I needed to get a new passport…and fast. Russia requires passports to be in good standing for at least 18 months after arrival; mine would only last 12 months.
“Perhaps I could send a copy of my current passport to hold me over until I receive the new one,” I thought. My study abroad coordinator responded to my inquiry with darkening news — due to my passport complications, I must study in Russia during a different semester or pick a different location. Panic mode ensued. Neither of those are options. I insisted my coordinator grant me an extension and waited for her response via email.
While waiting for her response, I entered full-fledged defense mode. No way would I not study in Russia in the Spring. My Russian professor sadly informed me she has no expertise on the Russian visa process. My university’s study abroad office offered no advice on the subject. Passport Services at the Department of State shared no guidance, not even if I received an extension. I was lost. How can I possibly gather a new passport in one day?
After waiting nearly forty minutes on hold to speak to a visa clerk at the Russian Embassy in D.C., I received good news. Although the Russian clerk couldn’t help me retrieve an American passport within 24 hours, she informed me the passport deadline given to me by AIFS wasn’t completely accurate.
It would take approximately one month to receive an invitation letter from the Russian university and approximately two weeks to receive a visa. At minimum, without paying extra for an expedited visa, I could begin the visa application process no later than mid-November. The university simply, and understandably, wanted to complete all the students’ paperwork at one time. The saint-like Russian embassy-worker ensured me if the university gave me any more trouble the embassy would step in. I was guaranteed the opportunity to apply for a visa and that was all I needed to trudge forward.
Pursuing an Expedited Company
With new courage to pursue a student visa independently, I began my passport application process the next day. I, however, received word from my study abroad coordinator granting me a special one-week extension. Expedited passports take minimum two weeks through the post office. I about turned down the extension, but my mom encouraged me to look into a special passport expedition service. Despite a $249 service charge on top of the normal passport fees, I pursued this route to ensure I could study abroad. I was promised a passport within three days by passportsandvisas.com.
I quickly filled out my paperwork for the passport application and additional paperwork from the company. This is when things felt suspicious. Passports and Visas requested a copy of my passport application, the very application that includes my social security number and other personal information. I did not feel comfortable sharing this information with a non-governmental agency, but I was desperate. “At least the reviews for Passports and Visas are exceptional”, I thought, assuming this legitimized my argument for pursuing a private route.
After completing the stack of paperwork, I brought my application and the company’s required paperwork to the courthouse. The young, blonde clerk immediately found the release form of my information to Passports and Visas. “Did you already pay them?”, she inquired. Yes, I had. She clicked her tongue in disapproval and asked by when I needed my passport. “ASAP.” To my surprise, she informed me of a cheaper and free route. I pursed this new route, despite having already payed for Passports and Visas, because I trusted the personnel handling my sensitive information.
How did I receive a free expedited passport in only three days? My local senator.
Once the courthouse clerk told me this, I immediately called and explained my situation. The lovely Director of Constituent Advocacy ensured me she could help. The courthouse clerk finished processing my application and I hand-carried my application to Ms. Nancy, an employee of Senator Tom Thillis. She dropped off my application in the post office that Wednesday afternoon before closing. Passport Services must have received it the very next morning, processed my application, and dropped my new passport in the mail that evening. I received my new passport on Friday, only three days later. Ms. Nancy even emailed me to confirm I received my passport. (THANK YOU!!)
How You Can Do It
If you need your passport ASAP, call your local senator’s office to see if they can offer you a free expedited passport. Each senator’s passport process may differ, but here are the steps I took to receive a new passport in only three days.
- Call the local senator’s office to see if they can help. Their small offices surely can’t handle every constituents passport, nor would it be fair to unnecessarily expedite a passport, so don’t be discouraged if they can’t take on your case. See below for other ways to receive a passport.
- Fill out the online passport application form, found here.
- If you don’t already have passport photos, I recommend Walgreens. Passport photos cost $15.
- Go to a processing station, like a post office or courthouse. After completing the passport application on the State Department’s website, a locator tool will be visible to search local processing stations. Look for one with walk-in availability! Be sure to mention you’ll hand-carry the processed application to your local senator’s office. Pay the $190.33 expedited passport fee (check, money order, or cash only) and $25 service fee (cash only).
- Buy an overnight stamp for $22.95 at the local post office.
- Carry your passport application and stamp to your senator’s office. They’ll do whatever they do.
- Check your mailbox in a few days!
In total, I spent $258.28 for an expedited passport; Passports and Visas refunded me $199 from the original $249. Expediting a passport through the senator should cost about $238.28. No additional fees for expediting a passport necessary!
Other Expedited Services
Normal passports take 6-8 weeks to process. Expedited passports take 1-2 weeks to process. Expedited passports through a private company, such as Passports and Visas, cost the expedited passport fees plus a hefty service fee.
My Passports and Visas agent was helpful and friendly during our brief phone call. Since I didn’t complete the process with a private company, I can’t say whether or not a private company is secure for personal information, like social security numbers, or if a passport would arrive within the guaranteed amount of time. I chose to go through the senator’s office because I knew I could trust him and it was significantly cheaper.
If I could go back in time, I would’ve saved another $50 and gone straight to the senator’s office for help. Hindsight is 20/20. Hopefully you
Do you know any other surprising ways your senator can help you?