Bureau of Consular Affairs, Department of State
Note: Unlike other profiles, which were compiled with agency participation, staff from the Bureau of Consular Affairs was unable to participate in research interviews or review the Passports profile this year. Data and insights are based on publicly available information on the agency’s website and in news reports about passport services.
Passports are vital documents that enable people to travel around the world, and the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department issues millions of them every year. A total of 143.1 million valid U.S. passports were in circulation in fiscal year 2020.
The coronavirus pandemic significantly impacted the bureau’s ability to provide passport services in 2020 and 2021. Because of the printing equipment and other technology used to process and issue passports, bureau staff were unable to work from home, and at the beginning of the pandemic passport services were limited to only those who had to travel for emergencies. The bureau brought staff back into offices and resumed regular passport processing beginning in summer 2020. But by spring 2021, increased interest in travel, combined with lingering pandemic workplace restrictions at the bureau, resulted in a significant backlog of passport applications. As of July 2021, the bureau was estimating an average processing time of 18 weeks for regular passports, and 12 weeks for expedited service, up from 6 to 8 weeks in fiscal year 2019.
average processing time in weeks for passports as of July 2021. (up from estimates of 6-8 weeks in fiscal year 2019)
passports issued in fiscal year 2020. (20.7 million in fiscal year 2019)
Customer Experience Insights
Improvement from last year
Room for improvement
As of July 2021, the State Department was taking up to 18 weeks to process and mail routine passport applications, and up to 12 weeks to process and mail expedited applications as the agency worked to address a backlog of as many as two million applications.1
At the beginning of the pandemic, the agency limited passport services to those who needed to travel for an emergency, as most of the staff responsible for processing passports was sent home for safety. Staff members are unable to telework because passport processing requires use of IT systems that can only be accessed within the State Department’s facilities. In the fall of 2020, the agency prioritized bringing Passports staff back to the office safely, and passport processing times returned to pre-pandemic lengths by December 2020.2
However, in early 2021, as vaccinations increased and more people began planning international travel, applications surged, and the agency once again struggled to keep pace.3 The agency continues to bring more staff back into the office and is working to hire additional staff and contractors to increase passport processing capacity, but it will take time for these new staff to be trained. In the meantime, the State Department is cautioning travelers that they should plan to apply for or renew their passport at least 6 months ahead of any planned travel, as the backlog is expected to continue for some time.4
Customers cannot apply for or renew a passport online due to constraints with the department’s information technology systems. The bureau’s plans to enable customers to apply for or renew passports online have been delayed, with little progress made in recent years, according to the agency’s Office of the Inspector General.5
Staff at both the contact centers and local passport offices receive extensive training to resolve customer issues, and the organization celebrates examples of excellent service through awards and newsletters. The bureau also ensures staff members across the organization have consistent information when interacting with customers, so that people get the same guidance no matter how they contact the bureau.
Passport services application process survey results6 (fiscal year 2019, all scores out of 100 points)
- How professional was the staff where you applied for your passport? 90
- How knowledgeable was the staff where you applied for your passport? 91
- How do these numbers compare? 68.1 on scale of 0 to 100: the aggregated score across federal services measured in the American Customer Satisfaction Index in 2019.
Leading Customer Experience Practices
The Partnership and Accenture developed the following list of practices to understand how agencies prioritize the customer experience, and steps they can take to improve. The list is based on research about effective customer experience practices in both government and the private sector, and aligns with practices in a customer experience maturity self-assessment for agencies developed by the Office of Management and Budget.
A strong commitment and plan from agency leaders to prioritize customer experience is essential for sustained progress.
1. Includes high-quality customer experience in its strategic goals.
However, customer experience is included as a focus area in the bureau’s goals around innovation and modernization.
2. Specifies customer feedback as a key measure of the organization’s performance.
The bureau has a key performance measure based on the timeliness of passport processing but does not include customer feedback.
3. Has a senior executive with the responsibility and authority to lead efforts to improve the customer experience across the organization.
The deputy assistant secretary of state for passport services oversees all aspects of passport delivery. Improving customer experience is a part of that role.
Ease of Customer Interactions
Interactions with the federal government should be easy, transparent and designed around user needs.
For the most common services provided, customers can:
1. Complete common transactions using the service delivery channel of their choice.
Customers can access passport applications online but cannot submit the complete application electronically. As of July 2021, appointments at the State Department’s passport centers can only be scheduled by phone. Online scams led the bureau to disable its online appointment system.
2. Obtain status updates through online self-service.
Customers typically can get online updates on the status of their passport applications. However, during the coronavirus pandemic, the bureau has been limited in its ability to provide estimates of when people will receive their passports.
3. Receive a response to feedback or answers to questions over social media.
The Bureau of Consular Affairs’ social media accounts frequently respond to customer comments and questions on Twitter, with either specific responses or directions on where to find relevant information.
4. Access online information and support in languages other than English.
Information about passport services is available on the bureau’s website in Spanish, although online services and printable forms are available only in English.
Listening to Customers and Acting on Feedback
To understand and prioritize customer needs, agencies should collect, publish, analyze and act on feedback.
1. Collects meaningful customer experience data across interactions and service delivery channels and shares it with the public.
While the bureau collects customer experience data across service delivery channels, it does not currently share this data with the public.
2. Collects and analyzes first-hand customer feedback to understand customers’ experiences, based on their own words.
The bureau holds focus groups and listening sessions to gather feedback in customers’ own words.
3. Aggregates and analyzes customer feedback across channels and programs, and shares feedback with relevant staff members so they can act on it.