I'm not shy about telling people that Americans today are blessed to have inherited government institutions designed by people who believed in the government's ability to function. I marvel, for example at the IRS's ability to fit a century of income tax regulations onto a one- or two-page form that works for almost all wage-earners – despite Congress's insistence on adding more amendments, exceptions, and exclusions each year.
While one political faction continues to sabotage the ability of those institutions to function on a daily basis, for the time being our inheritance hasn't yet run out. That's why I'm writing more in sadness than in anger at a ridiculous institutional failure I encountered today.
Since it has to do with US passport renewal, I think it's not completely out of place here. For all I know, this post may even help someone in the future who runs into the same absurd situation.
The Department of State has an online tool to complete applications for passport renewals
You can find it here.
Since passport renewals require you to submit a recent (within 6 months) passport-sized photo and your most recent passport (which the Department of State insists on calling a "passport book"), you can't actually submit the application online. However, you can use an online tool to prepopulate the fields of the relevant form, DS-82:
Then you just have to print and sign the form, and submit it with the necessary materials.
The online tool is too smart for its own good
This took me several hours of trial and error to discover, but buried deep in this online tool is a seemingly innocuous question:
As it happens, my place of birth WAS printed incorrectly on the passport I've been using for the last 9 and a half years. I was born in Arkansas, but my passport says I was born in Alaska (AR, AK, get it?).
If you report an error of any kind, however, your answers are prepopulated not to the correct DS-82 form, elegantly titled "U.S. PASSPORT RENEWAL APPLICATION FOR ELIGIBLE INDIVIDUALS", but to the DS-5504 form, used for "NAME CHANGE, DATA CORRECTION, AND LIMITED PASSPORT BOOK REPLACEMENT."
This error could cost you months of processing time
This shouldn't – necessarily – matter. After all, both the DS-82 and DS-5504 forms contain the same information (which is why they can be prepopulated from the same online tool). But the DS-5504 contains the following text:
"There is no fee associated with the use of this form unless expedited service is requested (see below)."
While the DS-82 reads:
"Please visit our website at travel.state.gov for detailed information regarding current fees."
In my case the renewal fee for my passport was $110. What would have happened if I had submitted my application without a check for $110? I have a hard time even venturing a guess. Would they have simply mailed my application back? Is there someone in the passport processing facility whose job it is to call hundreds or thousands of people every day to try and track down their missing payments?
A (kind of) explanation
As it turns out, there is an explanation for this diabolical situation: you can file form DS-5504 within a year of your passport's date of issue and have any errors on the document corrected at no charge. That seems like a fairly reasonable policy, allowing for human error on the part of both applicants and State Department employees.
What's unreasonable is that the online tool defaults to form DS-5504 even though another question on the same form asks for your most recent passport's date of issue. The online tool simply doesn't check first whether you're eligible for a fee-free replacement before defaulting to the fee-free form.
Now, if this were United Airlines, I'd have just submitted the fee-free form and crossed my fingers. But with the US government, I thought it was better to be safe than sorry, and submitted the DS-82 instead, with check firmly attached.
And if there are any errors on my new passport, I'll deal with them in another 9-and-a-half years!