How to take a passport photo

From DIY to AAA, here's how to take a passport photo in 6 different ways

Applying for your first passport, or renewing an old one? In addition to the documents you need to submit, you’ll also have to provide a photo. But not just any photo will do, as the U.S. Department of State has a list of requirements that must be met. Not meeting one could result in an unwanted — and unfortunate — delay.

There are two approaches to taking a passport photo: Do it yourself for free or utilize a service for a fee, such as a nearby pharmacy’s photo center. Choosing one will depend on your timing and budget, as well as the amount of effort you want to put in. Regardless of which option you pick, here’s how to get the perfect passport photo. You’ll be jetting off to somewhere far in no time.

Why do you need a passport?

Simply put, a passport allows you to travel outside the country and re-enter upon your return. A passport serves as both a proof of identity and citizenship. Possessing a passport is required when you travel outside the United States or its territories.

A passport also works as the ultimate photo ID. Should you misplace your driver’s license or you need a second proof of identification, a passport is universally accepted, whether you’re flying domestically or trying to get into a club.

The official requirements

A passport photo is not the time to submit your Hollywood headshot. In this case, the more natural you look in the photo, the more likely it’ll be accepted by the Department of State. The photo also needs to be taken recently, or at least within the last six months. If you’ve undergone a significant change to your facial appearance — if you’ve grown a beard, for instance — you may also need a new passport with an updated photo.

While there are guidelines to follow, they aren’t necessarily complicated:

  • Photo must be in color
  • Subject’s background must be entirely white or off-white
  • Head should face directly at the camera, and face must be in clear view
  • Eyes should be wide open (infants’ eyes can be closed or partially open)
  • Remove red eyes and shadows (caused by a flash or overhead lighting)
  • Keep a neutral facial expression or make a normal smile
  • Wear clothing you would normally wear
  • Unless it’s for religious reasons, no hats or head coverings
  • No objects should be in the photo, such as headphones or pacifiers
Julian Chokkattu / Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu / Digital Trends

If you need further guidance, here are some examples of what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Also, keep in mind that the State Department does not endorse any particular photo service, even those that claim to be government-compliant. The State Department could still reject a photo if it fails to meet the guidelines listed above.

Ready to have your photo taken? Here are a few options available at your disposal, as well as our preferred method.

Opt for your local drugstore

All major pharmacies with a photo center — e.g., Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid — offer a passport photo service. Retailers such as Costco, Sam’s Club, Walmart, Target, FedEx Office, and the UPS Store also offer similar services. For many people, these businesses are conveniently located close to where they live or work. Prices range from $5 to $15, and photos can be ready for same-day pickup or even within an hour, which is ideal if you’re in a rush. For the fee, you’ll also get two 2-inch by 2-inch photos.

We recommend that you ask to see the photos before you pay, however, just to make sure you’re happy with the way you look.

Check out your local post office

The United States Postal Service can accept (but not process) passport applications and renewals at most branches. Select post office locations can even take your photo for an extra fee, which means you can take care of your entire passport application in one place.

The problem with using the post office is just that — it’s the post office. The government agency isn’t particularly known for its speed or efficiency, and passport services have different hours for different locations. Expect to wait in line if your local post office tends to get busy.

Utilize your AAA membership

If you’re an active AAA Premier or Plus member, you can have your passport photos taken for free. Each year, Premier-level members are entitled to four sets (one set equals two 2-inch by 2-inch photos) per household, while Plus-level members receive one set per member. It’s a nice benefit for premium-level members, but it does require trekking to a AAA branch, which may not be convenient for everyone. Basic-level members can also pay $8 for a set, while nonmembers can nab a pair for $12.

Hire a photography studio

The above-mentioned services are convenient, but keep this in mind: The people taking the photos aren’t professional photographers, so don’t expect them to take glamorous headshots for your passport. Most use a basic point-and-shoot camera under fluorescent store lighting. In fact, one AAA office we visited uses a decent DSLR, yet the photos still came out OK. If you’re somebody who cares about portrait aesthetics, consider using a photo studio. Many studio photographers who shoot portraits also offer passport photo services. They are more expensive — one studio we found, charges $20 for basic shots and $40 for ones with studio lighting — but your photos would be taken by someone with a professional eye, who can at least make sure you look your best.

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