(Note: this post applies to American passports only- sorry!)
Before you can go adventuring anywhere it is essential that you have a valid passport. People tend to put this off as it’s a slightly complicated and tedious process. Don’t leave this to the last minute as the process can take a long time and speeding it up is costly! I would recommend applying for your passport right away, even if you haven’t started planning a trip yet. That way you will have it when you need it and in the meantime it is a useful peace of identification in many situations.
First you should visit the state department website to get a rundown of the application process. I’ve summarized the important bits below, but they are obviously the experts on the matter. The process can be a little overwhelming at first, but step-by-step it’s really not too difficult to do.
Here’s what you will need:
1: Fill out and print Form DS-11 which you can find on the state departments website. Do NOT sign the form yet!
2: Gather your identification. Just like applying for a driver’s license or a bank account, you will need to prove that you are you. To apply you will need:
– Proof of US Citizenship: easiest would be a Birth Certificate or an expired passport, but a Naturalization Certificate, Certificate of Citizenship or Consular Report of Birth Abroad or Certification of Birth
– Primary Identification: A driver’s license, government ID, military ID, or Naturalization certificate. If you don’t have any of these there is a list of secondary identification documents (http://travel.state.gov/passport/get/Secondary%20Evidence/Secondary%20Evidence_4314.html) that are also valid.
3: You will also need a photocopy (on 8X11) paper of your identification document.
4: You will need to have two lovely passport size photos taken. These photos have very specific specifications so I wouldn’t recommend trying to do it yourself. Simply go to your local Kinkos (or FedEx Office as they now apparently call them) and have them do it for you- it takes about 15 minutes. While you are there get some extra copies, you never know when they might come in handy for visas).
Once you have all of these things compiled you need to find either an Acceptance Facility or a Regional Passport Agency. Passport Agencies are only found in very major cities, so it will probably be more convenient to find an Acceptance Facility as these include many post offices and libraries. If you need your passport expedited however, you will need to go to the Regional Passport Agency.
Once you sign the forms and send everything off it should take 4-6 weeks for your passport to arrive. You can check the status here.
Passport Books Vs. Passport Cards: The passport card is a new recently created document that can be used to enter the United States from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda at land border crossings or sea ports-of-entry. You can not use it to enter any other country or for international air travel. The alleged benefit of this is that it is cheaper than getting a full passport. But even if you are only planning a drive up to Canada at the moment, chances are you are going to want to leave North America at some point. I would recommend getting yourself a real Passport Book and saving yourself the hassle (and money) of eventually applying for both.