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State Department facing "unprecedented demand" for passports, Blinken says

The U.S. State Department is facing "unprecedented demand" for passports as Americans gear up for renewed travel after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday.

"We're getting 500,000 applications a week for a passport. That's 30 to 40% above last year, so it's dramatic," Blinken said in response to a question about extended wait times for U.S. passport renewals and visa applications during a House Appropriations subcommittee budget hearing.

During the pandemic, the "bottom basically dropped out of the system," Blinken said, and "demand went way down." Since the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, travel has roared back, with 52% of all Americans planning to travel in the next six months, said the U.S. Travel Association, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote travel to and within the U.S.

A record number of passports — 22 million — were issued in fiscal year 2022. Blinken said the State Department is "on track to break" that record in 2023.

Blinken said the State Department has made a concerted effort to boost its staffing and resources dedicated to processing passport and visa applications after having to cut back during the height of the pandemic.

"I have a task force established at headquarters to marshall all of these efforts so that we're really digging in on this," Blinken said. "We're authorizing overtime, we've opened satellite offices."

"I think it's really important that we be as clear and transparent as possible with people who are looking for passports to know what they can expect," he added.

Blinken said the standard processing time for a passport currently "takes about 10 to 13 weeks" and an expedited request takes roughly "seven to nine weeks." These processing times only apply to new applications submitted on or after March 24, the State Department said in a news release. Processing time begins the day an application is received and does not include mailing time, the statement read. 

In 2022, the State Department launched an online renewal pilot because, Blinken said, passport holders should be able to renew online "and not have to come in the passport center with all the resources that requires."

"We expect that 65% of renewal customers for passports will be able to do so online once this program is fully up and running on the visa side," Blinken said.

Delay times for visas have started to recede, Blinken said. Global wait times are two months in most places, half of what it was a year ago, he said.  The State Department is prioritizing visas that have an economic impact, particularly for students, temporary workers, business travelers and maritime crews. 

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