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Official Urges Citizens to Plan Ahead, Get a Passport

Ivette Rodriguez traveled to the Virgin Islands this week with a message – If you’re planning to do any traveling of your own, you should make sure you have a passport.

In fact, Rodriguez, who is customer service manager for the Miami Passport Agency, thinks everyone should have a passport because you just never know.

Her territory covers the state of Florida, plus the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. She visits from time to time to hold training with local passport officials, passing on new policies or procedures and listening to them for ideas she can bring back to the main office for discussion.

Tuesday afternoon she sat in the Frederiksted office of the lieutenant governor, or as she referred to it, Frederiksted’s "passport acceptance facility." In the territory, processing passport applications is a function of the lieutenant governor. With her was Laura Pascarella, who has worked in the Miami office for two months and is traveling with Rodriguez learning the ropes, and Barbara Acoy, the district supervisor for the lieutenant governor.

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All three hammered home the point that everyone citizen should at least consider getting a passport. In a country that does not have an official national identity card, a passport can serve as a positive identification.

Other forms of ID, a drivers license or state identification card, are useful, but a passport or passport card is much more, Rodriguez said.

"A passport is a national security document," she said. As such, it is a much surer form of identification, since it is based on thorough screening of all documents and databases.

When someone travels outside the United States, she or he will need a passport, so it just makes sense to get it ahead of time. Otherwise the person will find themselves facing a deadline without enough time to get one. That’s equally true for parents she added. They should make sure their children have a passport if there’s any likelihood that they might be traveling, even just from island to island. Many young people in sports travel to other island jurisdictions for tournaments and have to have a passport. Getting that child a passport before it is needed should be as much a part of getting involved in a sport as making sure he has the right shoes and a doctor’s checkup.

Rodriguez briefly ran through the process of application, which is available on the State Department website, travel.state.gov. Passport application forms are available for download on the site, but they still have to be presented in person along with the following:

• Evidence of U.S. citizenship (primarily birth certificate or naturalization certificate)

• Present identification, which can include a valid driver’s license, government ID or military ID

• The fee – The full passport costs $135 for anyone 16 and older, $105 for a minor. The passport card, about the same size and feel as a driver’s license, costs $55 for 16 and older, $40 for minors. The card is more portable, but less universally useable. For instance, in the Caribbean travel region you can travel to any island with the card if you go by boat, but if you want to fly, you have to have the full passport.

• A photo. Not just a family snapshot or a picture taken by a friend. The passport photo has to meet requirements spelled out on the State Department website. Most professional photographers and photo services can provide one.

First time applicants have to go through the application process in person, but when the passport has to be renewed it can be done through the mail, although there are good reasons to continue doing it in person.

Because of the Virgin Islands’ status as a territory, not a state, all application fees paid to the V.I. passport offices stay in the territory. When people mail in their renewal forms, the fees are paid to the federal government.

Acoy said that’s a very good reason to renew in person, and said she and others in the office work hard to make it as simple s possible. Also, she noted, a person who mails in his renewal won’t know if there was a problem in delivery until the four to six week waiting period is gone. If the renewal is handled through the office, Acoy said delivery and processing can be tracked.

Once the proper forms are submitted and the fee paid, the application is sent to one of the stateside facilities where every detail is checked against a variety of databases including vital statistics and public safety to make sure the passport is going to the right person. The process takes about four to six weeks, although it can be expedited by payment of an additional $60 fee.

"We want to encourage people to plan ahead," Rodriguez said. "Don’t wait until the last minute before your trip, or you might not be able to travel."

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