Eyes forward, hat off, natural smile: check. But even if you think you took a great passport photo, it may still be rejected. The U.S. Department of State and its National Passport Information Center have seriously strict guidelines about what constitutes an acceptable photo, and any image that doesn't meet those guidelines will be rejected. Bad pictures are the primary cause of passport-processing delays. If your photo is rejected, receiving a new passport is sometimes as simple as sending in a new version.

What Happens if My Passport Photo Is Rejected?

It depends. The Department of State doesn't share information about what happens during the passport-processing stage, but many travelers have shared stories about being asked to resubmit photos when their original submissions were rejected. If the photo is the only problem with your application, it's likely that the application will be put on hold until the NPIC receives an acceptable image.

The agency will send a letter explaining the reason for the hold and provide instructions for mailing in a new photo. Get moving quickly – the NPIC requires a response within 90 days. When that photo is approved, the passport will be processed.

If there are other issues with the application in addition to the photo, you may be asked to provide more documentation or possibly be required to resubmit the application entirely. The letter the NPIC sends will provide specific instructions about what to do next. Any applicant with questions may also contact the NPIC by phone or email.

Why Was My Photo Rejected?

Any photo that doesn't comply with every one of the NPIC's guidelines will be rejected, without exception. Sometimes, the issue is as simple as the size of the head in the frame. An acceptable photo is 2 inches by 2 inches. The distance from the bottom of the chin to the top of the head must measure between 1 and 1 3/8 inches. Posing in front of a background that is any color other than white or off-white is also grounds for rejection. The photo must also be recent. If, for example, a child's passport application shows that she's 3 years old, but her passport photo shows her at 18 months, it will probably be returned.

Applicants who are pictured wearing a hat or head covering must submit a letter that documents it as a religious or medical requirement. If it's the former, the letter must explain that the head covering is part of a recognized religious tradition and that it's customary to wear it at all times in public. If it's a medically necessary head covering, the applicant's doctor must write and sign a letter explaining that fact. If you're pictured wearing something on your head, the NPIC won't accept the photo without that letter of explanation.

Tips for Taking a Good Passport Photo

It's very unlikely that a photo taken at home will conform to the requirements. Get passport photos taken professionally at a drug store, grocery store, big-box store or other business that offers photo-developing services; often such businesses take passport pictures too. The photographer should demonstrate an understanding of the photo requirements and make sure the subject is positioned correctly.

Wear any shirt, as long as it's not camouflage, part of a uniform or covering part of the face. When it's time to take the picture, remove your glasses. They're only allowed in the photo if they can't be removed for medical reasons; even if you can't see without them, take them off. (If you really can't remove them, get a doctor's note for that too.) Remove any earpieces, hats or unnecessary head coverings. Brush the hair off your face so no part of it is obscured. Face the camera straight on without tipping the chin up or down. Adopt a neutral expression or a slight, natural smile. Keep your eyes open.

Approve the photo before ending the session. Measure the distance between the chin and top of the head and make sure the image is free of shadows, clear and perfectly focused. Finally, verify that the photo is printed in color and on photo-quality paper. As long as the photo passes all those checks, it should be acceptable to the NPIC.