Travelers face long delays for passports

Passport processing times are taking up to 18 weeks. This is unacceptable, Columbia County Clerk Holly Tanner said. Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times/TNS

HUDSON — Columbia County is warning of passport delays of up to 18 weeks for travelers and other applicants.

Columbia County, like all New York counties, is facing serious delays in the return time for passports, County Clerk Holly Tanner said.

In Columbia County, the clerk’s office is a passport agent, Tanner said. This means they process passports for the federal government as part of the Buffalo Regional Agency.

“We received an email on June 21 from our customer service manager with the Buffalo passport region that the clarification made on the state department of travel website, processing times continue to be 12 weeks for routine and six to eight for expedited,” Tanner said. “They said there is an additional six weeks for mailing on the front and back, so customers should expect routine passports and renewal processing to take up to 18 weeks, and expedited to take 12 weeks. They’re blaming the mail.”

Pre-COVID, the processing time for a standard passport was six to eight weeks, Tanner said. If someone wanted to pay the $60 extra fee and get their passport expedited, the overnight postage there and back, and they could get their passport in four weeks. For a time during COVID, travel restrictions created less demand for passports and agencies were not processing them.

There have been complaints from people about the amount of time it’s taking, Tanner said.

“They’re blaming the post office, but we really don’t believe that,” Tanner said. “My association has been in contact with our senators on the federal level, because we’re hearing the complaints from people. It’s a lot of money to get a passport, and the mail has been a little slower. It’s no doubt that things have slowed down, but it’s getting better and certainly not six weeks. We think it’s because they’re not fully staffed.”

There is not the staff needed to process all of these at the federal level, Tanner said.

“There’s definitely a mystery surrounding it,” Tanner said. “It’s hard to get to the bottom of it. In my opinion, as someone who strives for excellent customer service, someone paying that much, waiting that long is ridiculous.”

Fewer people are applying for passports through the clerk’s office is less now than it was pre-COVID Tanner said. She explained they used to process an average of three-to-seven passports a day before COVID, and they now get about that many in a weeks time.

“There’s still not as high of a demand, the demand is not there yet at least in our office,” Tanner said. “There’s something definitely going on. People should be upset about it. I’m upset about it. I’m upset for myself and for my customers. It’s a lot of money and you should be able to expect a product that you’re paying for quicker than 18 weeks.”

Anyone planning to get a passport for a trip needs to plan ahead, Tanner said. She suggested people apply for their passports sooner rather than later.

“Your congressman’s office is a good resource,” Tanner said. “Because they’re federal, and the passport agency is a federal agency, they can sometimes assist if you have issues or problems. It really is a cumbersome process and I wish it were smoother and easier to do.”

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., held a press conference last week in which he addressed the issues surrounding passport delays.

“People want to travel. They need their passports and they need their visas,” Schumer said. “But unfortunately we have a very real problem and that is that the State Department has been so backlogged because of COVID, people didn’t apply for any visas and any passports while COVID happened, and now there’s a deluge, and they don’t have the personnel to do it, so people are waiting months and months and months.”

Schumer called on the State Department to assign more emergency personnel to handle visas and passports.

The U.S. Department of State website suggests people apply for a passport at least six months before their planned travels.

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