SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Now that coronavirus pandemic restrictions have started to relax, many people hoping to travel internationally are finding a new problem. Passport applications, which generally take a couple of weeks or months, are taking as long as 18 weeks or more to process.
"I think that we're going to see this into next year, possibly next summer," says Laila Matarwe, the owner of Five Star World Travel.
According to the U.S. State Department's travel website, people applying for new passports or trying to renew expired passports should expect "regular service" to take 18 weeks. Expedited service, which costs more, is taking 12 weeks.
The website doesn't give a specific reason why, but experts say they're struggling to keep up with demand, which dropped to some of the lowest numbers of the century during the pandemic.
Now that it's getting back to normal, the agencies cannot handle the extra volume.
"We knew it would be long, but we didn't know it would be that long," says Jason Woodmansee, a Scripps Ranch resident who is trying to get passports for his three kids.
Other ABC 10News viewers reached out through emails or social media, telling us about "nightmare scenarios" as they try to get passports. One went so far as to say, "The state department is robbing people of their joy left and right."
The State Department says people should apply for passports at least six months before any international travel on their website.
Adding to the problem, on July 21, the State Department shut down their online appointment booking system "to address the problem of third parties booking appointments online using automated programs, or bots, and then selling these appointments to customers with urgent travel needs."
The only way to get an appointment now is by phone.
The State Department is warning people to avoid third-party companies that promise faster service. They're also telling people to fill out forms online and take advantage of all of their self-service tools.
Matarwe says people traveling because of an emergency who plan to leave within 72 hours have one other option. They can show up at a passport office to get an emergency appointment.
But even those kinds of appointments are scarce.
"You have to have all your ducks in a row," Matarwe says. "Have all of your paperwork ready, everything with you, and show up at the passport office early in the morning to get in, like, standby."
She says this is also creating issues for people who have passports close to their expiration dates. Many countries and airlines won't accept a passport that expires within six months. When you factor in the long processing time, that means anyone whose passport expires within the next year should think about renewing now.
"Get it done ASAP, even if you don't think you'll need it," she says. "Just go ahead and get it."
For a directory of local passport offices, click here.