Picture perfect: The image and details necessary to renew your passport

Few people like the photos on their government issued IDs, but at least travelers have some control over their own passport photo – unlike, for instance, the DMV, where long lines and bad photos seem to be a given. In fact, as long as a passport photo meets certain standards, it can be taken by just about anyone.

Number of photos needed

A passport renewal requires just one color photo. The photo must be 2 inches square, printed on matte or glossy photo-quality paper, and has to meet certain guidelines. If the application is being mailed, staple the photo to the application for renewal, using four staples placed vertically in the corners of the photo as close to the edge as possible.

Photo Guidelines

To ensure easy acceptance of a passport application, follow the passport photo guidelines precisely.

  • Take the photo in front of a plain white or off-white background. It can’t have any detail, so avoid standing in front of a white brick or wooden wall, which can show patterns. It’s perfectly acceptable to hang a white blanket as a backdrop, but removing the background digitally is not permitted.

You can digitally alter a photo to remove red eye. Any other alteration is not allowed.

  • The color in the photo must be accurate. It can’t be too dark or too light, and the colors must reflect the true colors of the subject, clothing and background.
  • The subject must face the camera directly, with full face in view, and with shoulders turned toward the camera. The face should measure about 1-1 3/8 inches, from the top of the hair to the chin.
  • Use a neutral facial or a natural smile, with both eyes open. If the facial expression is exaggerated, or both eyes cannot be seen clearly, the photo will be rejected.
  • Wear clothing that is representative of whatever you wear on a normal basis.
  • Ensure that the photo is taken within the past six months.
  • Don't wear glasses, hats, head coverings, headphones and wireless hands-free devices. The full face must be visible, with no shadows obscuring any part.

If you wear glasses or a hat or head covering for medical reasons, submit a signed doctor’s statement with the application. Similarly, if you wear a hat or head covering for religious purposes, submit a signed statement verifying that the item must be worn continuously in public for religious reasons. Even if there’s a viable reason to keep the glasses or head covering on for the photo, the face must be fully visible with no shadows or obstructions.

Reasons for rejection

Deviation from the guidelines will cause the photo to be rejected. Photos are one of the primary reasons for delay in processing a passport, so make sure to get this right. It’s wise to have a professional take the photo, and there are many places to do this, from pharmacies to shipping centers to the post office.

An application can be rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with photography, however. If someone is delinquent on child support, or has defaulted on a government loan, that person’s application will be rejected. Anyone subject to foreign extradition will be denied a passport, and certain other court orders and declarations can block issuance as well. A minor involved in a custody dispute will not be issued a passport.

How to apply for passport renewal

For most travelers, though, renewal is easy. As long as the applicant is a U.S. citizen in possession of an undamaged passport that was issued after the 16th birthday, within the past 15 years, and in the person’s current name, the passport can be renewed, using form DS-82. If the passport is needed within two weeks, make an appointment to appear in person at a passport agency. If it’s not needed that quickly, a passport can be renewed through the mail. In either case, the applicant will need to submit:

  • Application form
  • Passport photo
  • Payment of passport fees
  • Current passport
  • In case of a name change, a certified copy of the marriage certificate or court order must be included.

It’s a good idea to renew a passport nine months before its expiration date. Many countries won’t allow entry to travelers with less than six months on their passports, and renewing it nine months before expiration prevents this from becoming an issue. If you’re a frequent traveler, make sure to check the box to get a 52-page passport, to have plenty of room for all your adventures.