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Two Decades of Kids and Counting

By Sally Torbey

About this blog: About this blog: I have enjoyed parenting five children in Palo Alto for the past two decades and have opinions about everything to do with parenting kids (and dogs). The goal of my blog is to share the good times and discuss the ...  (More)

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Pursuing passports at the post office

Uploaded: Aug 16, 2016
Last Monday found my husband, me, and our two teenage daughters at the post office renewing the girls’ passports. Because they are under 18 years of age, both my husband and I needed to be present. The passport office opens at 9 am. We arrived at 9:02 am to find a long line of people in the lobby outside the door to the passport office holding numbered sheets of paper. The employee in charge of passports waived us away saying we had arrived way too late, and we should come back earlier tomorrow. “How early?” we asked. “Early enough to be one of the first 20 people in line,” she said. We were advised that she hands out the 20 numbered sheets of paper each morning at 9 am, and only those 20 individuals who have a number may apply for a passport that day.

As we returned to our car we discussed the merits of discontinuing international travel until our youngest child turns 18 versus pitching a tent in front of the post office overnight to obtain two of those coveted numbered sheets of paper.

Fortunately for us, the passport lady intercepted us in the parking lot. She furtively slipped us sheets of paper #12 and #13. “Don’t tell anyone I gave you these!” she warned. Those two numbered sheets had been returned, but she defied the rules, and reissued them to us. We rejoiced that we need not pitch a tent after all!

We were instructed to return in an hour, which we did. There was still a long line of people standing in the lobby. They were standing because there were only two small benches on which to sit. We waited an hour as #8, #9 and #10 were served. Just one number to go! But then the door to the passport office clicked soundly shut as passport applicant #10 exited. Passport applicant #11 look perplexed. She knocked on the locked door with no response. Passport applicant #11 waited with us another 45 minutes. Our daughters and I passed the time informing naïve newly arriving passport applicants how one obtains the numbered sheets of paper required for applying. My husband was on his phone canceling business appointments (and fuming on Facebook). Eventually another post office employee informed us that the passport lady was at lunch but would be back in 5 minutes.

Three and a half hours after our arrival, we entered the passport office. The passport lady’s desk phone rang continuously. She initially ignored the phone while starting on our paperwork, but after about 15 minutes put down her pen and starting answering the phone instead. “No appointments”, she said to each caller. “Come early in the morning and get a number!” After a few of these calls she asked me if I’d like to start answering the phone for her, thus freeing her up to complete our paperwork, which I was happy to do, but unfortunately she was only joking. The other disruption was the periodic knocking on the door. We were no longer in the lobby to explain the numbering procedure, so the passport lady had to answer the door and explain the system to each new arrival. She finally did finish our applications, and then we waited another 10 minutes in the line at the counter to pay for the expedited service.

We were astounded and amazed when the new passports arrived in the mail today, a mere seven days after the applications were submitted! Who knew that getting passports renewed could be so quick and easy?
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Passport system is broken, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Aug 16, 2016 at 6:38 pm

We needed to get a new passport too. Get an appointment, but Palo Alto doesn't answer the phone. Call all the local post offices, Mountain View are very good at answering the phone, Redwood City and San Carlos have a shorter wait for appointments. I was also recommended Los Altos.

Make sure you have all the documents and paperwork filled in before arrival at the Post Office and get the picture taken at Walgreens rather than at the post office. Turn up 10 minutes before your appointment.

Good luck.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 16, 2016 at 6:42 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Passport system is broken,
Thanks for reading and commenting! Palo Alto doesn't make appts, I learned that by listening to the passport lady answer her phone repeatedly (instead of completing our paper work). We will try one of your alternate suggestions next time.

Posted by Pat, a resident of Professorville,
on Aug 16, 2016 at 9:54 pm

I had a similar experience last week. I was told passport office opened at 9 so I arrived about 15 of to be told if I wanted an appointment I needed to get there by 7:30 to stand in line to get a number under 20 for that day at 9. 20 a day? Such a wait? What a system! We can do better. Why don't we?

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Aug 17, 2016 at 12:05 am

For future applicants, while you're at it, pay the extra $30 to get the Passport Card. Someday soon you'll need more than a driver license to travel domestically, and a Passport Card is more convenient than carrying a whole passport booklet. Original Department of Homeland Security deadline was this coming October 10, after which Calif driver license would no longer be acceptable ID for Federal purposes (e.g. TSA). Apparently the grace period has been extended to January 22, 2018. Something about California (and half the other states) being non-compliant with the "REAL ID Act" of 2005. That's a big can of worms for our next presidential administration.

Posted by LJ, a resident of another community,
on Aug 17, 2016 at 6:41 am

Yikes! I already had too many reasons not to travel and now I can add passport renewal to the pile.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 17, 2016 at 7:58 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

HI Pat,
Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, online appts would be a big improvement over arriving at 7:30am to try and get an appt! I feel for the folks working there, it is not set up to serve customers, and they hear the complaints all day.

Dear Musical,
Thanks for reading and commenting! That is surprising news. Hopefully that new requirement for ID other than a driver's license will be publicized soon, otherwise there is no way the passport office will be able to handle the number of applications they will get next fall if folks need a passport "equivalent" to travel domestically in 2018.

Hi LJ,
The system is probably better organized where you live!

Posted by Passport system is broken, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Aug 17, 2016 at 8:43 am

If Palo Alto is not taking appointments that is new and hopefully temporary. We made appointments for earlier in the summer. Here is the relevant page on the website. I would suggest that if anyone needs a passport they shop around for the shortest appointment. It was about one month ahead at most post offices when we tried. Web Link

This system is completely broken.

Posted by Karen, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Aug 17, 2016 at 9:38 am

We had a great experience at the passport office at the San Mateo Library. We needed a Saturday appointment because both parents have to be there, and we were able to book the appointment by phone in advance. Each appointment is 15 minutes and we were in and out on time in less than 20 minutes.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 17, 2016 at 11:14 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Karen,
Thanks for reading and commenting! Sounds like it is worth the drive to San Mateo and back for such efficient service.

Dear Passport system is broken,
Maybe you are right and the lack of a system for appts in Palo Alto is temporary. A new postmaster was just appointed, so hopefully there will be a new system in place soon!

Posted by parent, a resident of Midtown,
on Aug 17, 2016 at 2:34 pm

My advice - don't apply for passports during the summer vacation season. Passports are good for 10 years, so just apply during fall or winter when lines are much shorter and turnaround is much faster. Even if you're not planning to travel for a year or two, it never hurts to have a valid passport. Since 9/11, the homeland security people are being extra careful, so don't expect any shortcuts in the application process.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 17, 2016 at 2:52 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi parent,
Probably it is busier in summer. We wanted to allow plenty of time to get the passports back before international travel during the winter break, but with the short turn around, we probably could have waited until fall to apply.

Posted by Tom Pencek, a resident of South of Midtown,
on Aug 17, 2016 at 4:09 pm

Tom Pencek is a registered user.

Thanks for writing this blog. I just found it!

I agree with others about the timing being unfortunate, and that PA may improve its service now that a new postmaster has been named. I may be confused or just plain wrong, but I thought the USPS contracted with the State Department for passport services. If the service is poor in PA (and don't tell me it can't be better, as your readers have mentioned a few examples) I think people should complain to the folks that HIRED them to provide this service.

According to the Postoffice Inspector General website, the USPS received $283 Million in 2008 from passport services. You'd think they'd want to keep that revenue coming.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 17, 2016 at 8:53 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Tom Pencek,
Thanks for reading and commenting! Maybe the problems are due to the lack of a postmaster for the last 14 months, and now that someone is at the helm again it will improve.

Posted by Michael O, a resident of Stanford,
on Aug 17, 2016 at 9:53 pm

Don't go without an appointment if you can absolutely avoid it. The Palo Alto PO passport office is staffed by one woman in the morning and one in the afternoon, and they go as fast as they can. Since the appointments are filled many weeks in advance, don't expect to be seen if you are a walk-in if there are more than one or two people in front of you because there is not really time for walk-ins to be seen.

I was angry the first time I walked in, but ultimately realized that their jobs are nightmares and they're pretty much doing the best they can. If you want a rush passport, go to the real passport office in San Francisco and get one there; otherwise, do as suggested above and make an appointment for the fall when the office is less busy. Appointments are pretty much seen right on time.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Green Acres,
on Aug 18, 2016 at 12:49 pm

The problem here is that the US Postal Service does not explain anything online so that people know what is going on. The employees at the Palo Alto post office do not make the rules, they only cope with the abuse because of them.

The Mountain Vw, Los Altos (Loyola), and Stanford post offices accept appointments, and they ONLY accept appointments, they do not do walk ups. When we called for an appointment, the soonest was more than a month away. Apparently things are busiest during summer and early fall, because of student travel (and people with children cannot get children's passports by mail). Then there is a lull, then things get busy again in advance of the holidays.

The Palo Alto station is the only one in the area that accepts walk-ins, but they only accept walk-ins, not appointments. I hope people can appreciate that having both available is an important service. We needed to do the walk-in just like you, Sally, last week. The reason I know all this is because I went to the work of calling the main USPS number and asking lots of questions, then calling Palo Alto and asking lots of questions. Unfortunately, despite that, I was STILL in the dark about the system and the fact that they gave out only 20 spots, even though I asked pointed questions about the process in order to be sure we did not miss out.

We arrived at 9:15am, and were #21 in line. Lucky for us, the manager made three more numbers available that day, maybe because some of the earlier customers had shorter needs (and made that clear hoping they wouldn't have to take up a number once we all realized what was going on). My main beef was that I wasn't given enough information despite my phone calls to anticipate even the importance of arriving before 9pm, or that they would limit the number of walk-ins to 20. We were standing in line for...I can't remember now, maybe an hour, before we even knew if we were going to get a number. Thankfully, the manager gave us an accurate estimate of how long we could leave, and then when we got in, they took care of things in a professional and timely way so that I did not have to miss some medical care I couldn't cancel that afternoon.

I think the employees are doing the best they can with what they have to do, under a system they don't control. It is clear they also receive daily abuse from customers who blame them. Please if you think this system needs improving, politely describe the problem, suggest some solutions, and above all, remember the local postal employees are just people, too. Put yourself in their shoes. I thought the person processing the passports was remarkably efficient, cheerful, and helpul especially under the circumstances. I think they would welcome improvements to the system. First and foremost, the USPS really needs to explain the setup better online for people so the publics knows what is going on in advance and how to best access the system to meet their needs.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Green Acres,
on Aug 18, 2016 at 12:55 pm

I almost forgot to add: When I suggest politely describing the problem and suggesting solutions, I meant to say, then mail them to the Postmaster. The local employees are already painfully aware of the problems with the system. The public input can help improve it. If a lot of people write asking or speciic improvements, they will respond.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 18, 2016 at 2:27 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear Resident,
Thanks for reading and your helpful comments! Despite prior inquiries, we were also in the dark about the need to arrive at 7:30am and the 20 number limit. It would be great if the procedure was explained on the website, or even a phone recording could also succinctly explain how it works.
Having worked in a number of service positions (department store clerk, teacher, physician, waitress), I am also sensitive to how frustrating it is to be an employee and work under conditions that prevent providing good service for the customer. Good suggestion to email the postmaster! And now, as of this week, there is a postmaster to email!

Posted by Be Positive, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Aug 18, 2016 at 3:09 pm

Be Positive is a registered user.

As recently as this spring, the Palo Alto post office ONLY accepted appointments, not walk-ins (not sure when that changed). The USPS website still says appointments only for Palo Alto, although it said walk-ins were fine when it was only appointments, lol.

We found the San Mateo County Clerk office to be both organized and helpful, if not particularly fast. Web Link

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 18, 2016 at 4:32 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear Be Positive,
Thank you for reading and commenting! We also remember making appts there for past passport renewals. Sounds like visiting the other offices in the area is the key until the Palo Alto post office sorts this out, it beats pitching a tent!

Posted by RW, a resident of another community,
on Aug 18, 2016 at 10:14 pm

Sally-You don't mention exactly which post office you went to. I arrived at 7:00am to a post office in San Jose and the line was already 40 deep. I left, defeated. Which post office did you go to?

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 19, 2016 at 6:24 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi RW,
Wow! 40 people at 7am, that is discouraging. We were at the post office in East Palo Alto at 2085 E. Bayshore Rd.

Posted by Been there before, a resident of Stanford,
on Aug 19, 2016 at 11:40 am

My wife and I go through this every 5 years with our 2 kids. One problem is children are in school during the hours the post office provides for passport applications (and they are closed during lunch!). And ys, Spring break appointments go fast. Get your appointment early and be sure all forms are filled out, copied, photos done etc. Another useful item is a notarized form from a parent so only one has to leave work to accompany the kid to the post office.

Posted by Obarack, a resident of Stanford,
on Aug 20, 2016 at 8:39 pm

And you guys want the government to run your health care too? That 40 deep line is really gonna suck when it is for your cancer treatment.

Posted by Parent, a resident of Southgate,
on Aug 21, 2016 at 9:59 pm

Obarack is completely correct! Canadians fly to the U.S. often for urgent treatment.

We had an excellent experience at the Milpitas City Hall. The building is new and modern and the employees are competent and stay on schedule. They schedule appointments but you can also call for cancellations: Web Link

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 22, 2016 at 10:51 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear Parent,
Good to know there is another good option for getting an appointment.

Posted by Passport Weekend, a resident of Mountain View,
on Aug 22, 2016 at 11:28 am

Plan to do it while out of town! When I was living in SLO I realized how good the DMV situation was there compared to the Bay area's DMVs wrt waiting and crowds.

I'm sure the post office in Morro Bay is less of a hassle so here's the plan: Plan a 3 day trip to Morro Bay, arriving Thurs evening. Get your passports done quickly on Friday w/out the crowds or hassles, then enjoy the rest of your weekend.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 22, 2016 at 1:27 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear Passport Weekend,
Thanks for reading and commenting. What a novel idea. I had no idea that these agencies were busier around here. Maybe it is possible to even multi-task and visit the DMV and the Post office on one visit (and have a get away)!

Posted by Parent, a resident of Southgate,
on Aug 22, 2016 at 2:53 pm

Speaking of DMV's, the San Jose DLPC (Driver's License Processing Center) is the best DMV around because it is new and appointments can be scheduled online for the next day! With an appointment, the process is really fast! They do not offer behind-the-wheel driving tests but they offer written tests and other DMV transactions. If you don't make an appointment, you might wait 45+minutes!

They used to only accept cash but I think that has changed, but I still don't think they accept credit cards (maybe checks and debit cards, unsure, bring cash).

Web Link

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 22, 2016 at 6:35 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Parent,
Thanks for reading and for the tip!

Posted by Go_Elsewhere, a resident of Midtown,
on Aug 22, 2016 at 10:18 pm

The trick - don't even try to do walk in's in Palo Alto.

It's a nightmare, just as you describe even IF you know the insider scoop on whatever process they happen to be using at the time. It was a nightmare 6 years ago and still is. Last March under the gun for an international departure w/ 4 kids, I sleuthed ALL possible options for walk in passport processing.

Best option? Redwood City county office building. They accept walk ins. Get there by 7:45. Stand outside the doors. Then BOLT all the way back to get your name FIRST on the call sheet for the passport people. You should be one of the first people served. Having all your paperwork + payment at the ready is not just courteous to the people behind you but it also helped you get in and out quickly.

We were out an hour after we arrived.

Posted by Been there, done that, a resident of South of Midtown,
on Aug 23, 2016 at 1:16 am

"Passport Weekend" is not the only person to have the idea to go out of town. Two years ago, I had first tried the PA Post Office, whose passport-photo camera was out of commission. Then, after calling around to various cities, I got an appointment in Redwood City some weeks later.

Before the RC appointment date, my husband and I had a trip planned that included an overnight in rural Nevada, and I thought, what if I just take my paperwork along on the trip in case I can get in somewhere else with no wait? After Googling potential no-appointment-needed locales in the area, we went to the Douglas County Clerk's office, where I was seen immediately. The whole process, including photos, took about half an hour. The friendly clerk even informed me of the existence of the passport card, of which I was unaware, and I ordered one of those, too.

So if you'll be passing through a less-populous area than our own, you might take your paperwork with you, and see what's available where you are going.

My adult son, who lives in Mountain View, just got his first passport a few weeks ago. He said he made an appointment with the downtown MV post office (scheduling about a month or so in advance), and he had no problems when he went in at the appointed time. Just another data point for you all.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 23, 2016 at 10:32 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks Been there, done that, for the information. It's appearing from your comment and other reader comments that if you have no urgency and can make an appointment well ahead of time, there are a number of passport offices nearby that will meet this need efficiently. But if you can't plan way ahead, the best walk-in option is to drive a few hours to save time waiting in line!

Posted by Buster's mom, a resident of another community,
on Aug 23, 2016 at 12:51 pm

Although this would not be an option for teenagers like the Torbey's have - if your passport was issued when you were 16 or older and is just a basic renewal, it can easily be renewed by mail. I have done this several times. Full instructions are on the US State Dept. website.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Aug 23, 2016 at 3:09 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear Buster's mom,
Renewing by mail is absolutely the easiest way to go. Just realized that by the time they need to renew again our girls will be over 18, so barring any lost passports or other last minute issues, mail will be the way to go.

Posted by Kathy K., a resident of another community,
on Oct 11, 2016 at 2:02 pm

I guess that's how it used to be here in NE Ohio. But now all 28 branches of our county libraries accept passport applications. We began doing this 6 years ago. The library collects $25 per application which is why we do it, for income. (post office also collects the same fee). Our citizens can come every day of the week to any branch and apply for a passport, so that's until 8pm most days. No one would ever wait 3 1/2 hours here. Most times we are done with a single application in about 10 minutes. Families take longer, of course, but not much. You should lobby the libraries in CA to become passport acceptance facilities. Good for the public and a good money maker for the library.

Posted by AT, a resident of College Terrace,
on Mar 28, 2017 at 1:03 pm

“Don't tell anyone I gave you these!" she warned.


I highly doubt that nice lady meant: "And now, dear, go write an article about it"

Posted by Belinda, a resident of Los Altos,
on Sep 8, 2017 at 1:22 pm

Thank you for all the useful suggestions in the article. Trying now and apparently from September 30th 2017 there will be a button on the USPS website under passports where appointments can be made at post offices online (I was informed of this when enquiring at Loyola Corners). Other places where get immediate responses online are Santa Clara County Recorder - (can book online but earliest appointment was 7 weeks out when I tried). Milpitas Town Hall responded quickly by email request - earliest appt for them was six weeks out. San Mateo Library answer their phones promptly and email confirmation of appt promptly - earliest appt for them was about 4 weeks out (and bonus of Saturday scheduling). So it looks like waiting from 7.00am will hopefully be a thing of the past with USPS soon - hooray!.

Posted by GL, a resident of Mountain View,
on Sep 12, 2017 at 10:58 am

Came across this thread when searching for passport and Palo Alto as had been there in the past (however was a long time ago when could make an appt rather than queue). Anyway Hope St downtown Mtn View is taking passport appointments (is about 5 weeks out for next available) however the phone keeps ringing out so you need to go in to the post office to make the appt. This new USPS online system sounds great if it happens.

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