The State Department is no longer allowing travelers to schedule last-minute passport appointments online to prevent third parties from scooping up the appointments for a profit.
Passport appointments have become scarce in recent months as more Americans ready themselves for international travel only to discover a long wait time for passports. The average nonexpedited wait time for new and renewed passports is 18 weeks, up from six to eight weeks before the pandemic. Paying $60 for expedited service can drop the wait down to 12 weeks.
Third parties have taken advantage of people's urgent travel needs, using bots to book all available passport appointment slots and sell them online – sometimes for hundreds of dollars. The appointments are typically free.
“We have temporarily removed the online last-minute appointment booking system to ensure our very limited, last-minute in-person passport appointments at one of our agencies or centers go to applicants who need them for urgent travel,” the State Department's website reads.
State department steps in to stop sales
Rachel Arndt, deputy assistant secretary for passport services for the Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs, said last week that the agency was aware of fraudulent requests for payment and working to stop the sales.
"The department is not affiliated with any third-party appointment booking services, and we’ve seen numerous instances of falsified appointment bookings through these vendors," she said during a July 14 briefing. "And unfortunately, we may not be able to honor appointments booked via third party, so we are aware and are working to try to rectify that situation."
Spokespeople for the State Department did not respond to a request for additional comment Thursday.
Senators call for end to passport backlog
A number of senators – including Joe Manchin of West Virginia and John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas – have called for an end to the passport backlogs that have disrupted Americans' travel plans.
The State Department issued 11,711,945 passports in fiscal year 2020, the lowest number since 2005.
“More urgency is needed, and more action is required, such as increasing the availability of the workforce for passport centers and making allowances for these crucial staff to return to work full time,” read a letter Cornyn and Cruz sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday.
Manchin said that constituents were reaching out to his office at an “unprecedented rate” because of the delay in passport processing.
“In years past, my office has received an average of five passport cases per month. Currently, my office receives at least five passport cases per day,” Manchin said in a July 15 letter to Blinken.
Arndt said last week the State Department was facing a backlog of between 1.5 million and 2 million passport applications.
How can travelers schedule a passport appointment?
Last-minute appointments are “extremely limited” and often reserved for travelers in a life-or-death emergency. The State Department suggested last week that travelers who want to travel overseas this summer but do not have a passport make alternate plans.
Passport appointments made online before Thursday are still valid. Travelers who want to schedule an appointment within 72 hours of their trip can call the National Passport Information Center at 1-877-487-2778 from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday.
►Passport appointment: Passport appointments are scarce. There's a black market selling them online for hundreds.
►Passport wait times: Itching for an international trip? Be prepared to wait up to 18 weeks for a passport
Follow USA TODAY reporter Bailey Schulz on Twitter: @bailey_schulz.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Passport appointments: Last-minute bookings no longer available online