People who need to renew their passports immediately will not be allowed to book last-minute appointments online, the U.S. State Department announced on Thursday.
Those last-minute appointments, which are meant for people with urgent travel needs, can now be scheduled only by phone, the department said.
The reason for the change? It is meant to solve â€œthe problem of third parties booking all available appointments using bots, and then selling them to applicants with urgent travel needs,â€ the department said in a statement posted on its website. Some appointments sold by third parties cost as much as $300, USA Today reported.
The department said the change was â€œtemporaryâ€ but did not indicate when booking those appointments online may resume.
The appointments can be made by calling the National Passport Information Center, at 1-877-487-2778, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Monday through Friday. â€œWait times to reach a customer service representative can be long,â€ the department said on its website. â€œLast-minute in-person appointments are still extremely limited.â€
The last-minute appointments are generally restricted to people who need to travel for life-or-death related emergencies, State Department officials said in a statement earlier this month. Americans seeking passports for nonessential travel are being offered â€œvery limited appointments,â€ and are required to show documents indicating their travel is within 72 hours, the department said.
Thursdayâ€™s announcement came about 16 months after pandemic lockdown restrictions started forcing many people to abruptly abandon their travel plans.
The pandemic also led the State Department to significantly reduce its passport operations in March 2020 in order to protect its staff from contracting Covid-19, the department said. This led to hundreds of thousands of American passports expiring.
Now, as travel restrictions are easing in Europe, Canada and elsewhere, a number of those passports still need to be renewed. And government officials are still working through the backlog.
Ned Price, a State Department spokesman, said on Monday that the department had increased the number of worker addressing the passport backlog. â€œWe are doing all we can, and we will continue to look for ways that we might seek and be able to accelerate passport processing.â€
Routine passport service by mail can take as long as 18 weeks, according to the departmentâ€™s website. (That includes up to 12 weeks for â€œprocessingâ€ and up to six weeks for mailing, according to the site.) Before the pandemic, that service could take six to eight weeks.
Expedited passport service, which costs an additional $60, can now take up to 12 weeks, compared with before the pandemic, when it took a few days to three weeks. A same-day expedited passport costs $170, with an additional $35 for first-time applicants.