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Q&A: How far in advance should you apply for a passport? Should you camp out in line?

Officials have attributed the long wait times to a surge in demand for travel after two years of pandemic-related restrictions

By Morgan Lowrie in Montreal

Some Canadians have been facing long delays to renew or obtain travel documents in recent weeks, leading to frustration and long lineups outside passport offices across the country. Here are some answers to questions about the passport renewal process.

Why are there long lineups outside passport offices?

Service Canada and federal Families Minister Karina Gould have attributed the long wait times to a surge in demand for travel after two years of pandemic-related restrictions. As an example, Gould has said more than 500 people a day have been lining up outside Montreal passport offices that usually process 150 to 200 daily applications.

Kevin King, president of Union of National Employees, which represents employees at passport offices, says the wait times are due to a combination of factors: people who let their passports lapse during the pandemic; the fact that the earliest cohort of 10-year passports are about to expire; and the government’s failure to anticipate increased demand and to train new employees during the pandemic. As well, King said some people who mailed their applications months ago still haven’t received them and are now joining the in-person lineups.

What should I do if I need to renew my passport and how long will it take? 

The government recommends people ensure they have a valid passport before booking any international travel. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has updated its estimated wait time for a passport to 45 working days — or about nine weeks — for those who apply at a Service Canada centre or by mail. 

Those travelling within 45 days can make an appointment at a passport office, as long as they have proof of travel. The government has also posted wait times online for walk-ins; however, it notes that walk-in appointments may not be available due to high volumes. People following this process should expect to receive their passport in up to two weeks, plus mailing time.

As of Thursday, Service Canada says 79 per cent of Canadians who apply for a passport receive one within 40 working days, and 96 per cent of those who submit in person at a specialized site receive their passports within 10 working days. 

What if I’m travelling in the next couple of days? Should I camp outside the passport office?

People travelling in less than two business days need to bring their proof of travel to a passport office that offers urgent pickup.

In recent days, some people have been camping overnight outside these specialized passport offices hoping to receive their documents. Gould said Wednesday the government “really doesn’t want people to experience that.” She said there are efforts underway to reduce lines, including giving people tickets with a designated time to return, posting walk-in wait times online, and having staff on site to offer information and “triage” the most urgent cases.

However, she said some people are still choosing to get up early to get to passport centres to ensure they make their flights.

What is being done to solve the problem?

Gould has described the current passport delays as “unacceptable,” and she has said the federal government has hired 600 new staff and is also borrowing hundreds more from other departments, such as the Canada Revenue Agency. 

Service Canada said in an email that it has also added processing hubs, has asked employees to work overtime and weekends, has started publishing wait times online, and has created an online appointment-booking web page. 

When will wait times get back to pre-pandemic levels?

King believes the situation at passport offices will not get back to normal any time soon and may actually be worsening as more people finish school and want to travel. 

“This will be a continuing story, unfortunately, in my opinion, for several months minimum,” he said, adding that while the government has hired new employees, it hasn’t confirmed how many are passport officers — who are the only ones who can issue the documents.

King is asking people who are not travelling immediately to avoid joining the lineups and instead renew by mail or make an appointment at a Service Canada centre. He’s also asking people who do have to line up to treat the passport office workers with respect, noting that some have been cursed and spat at by frustrated clients.

Banner image: People camp out overnight in line outside a Service Canada passport office, in Vancouver, on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2022.