How to take a passport photo

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

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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 a delay that may force you to change your travel plans.

There are two approaches to taking a passport photo: Do it yourself for free, or utilize a service for a fee. Many pharmacies have photo centers that offer passport services, for example. 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.

Official passport photo 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 will be accepted by the Department of State. The photo also needs to be taken recently, 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 the list of guidelines is long, they aren’t really that 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 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 just 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.

Use a mobile app

Is driving to the pharmacy too much of a hassle? Just take a picture with your phone. And why not? You’ve already got it with you, it’s quick and easy to use, and the latest phones can take really good photos.

There are plenty of passport apps available for both iOS and Android users, though our favorite is Passport Photo Creator (iOS, Android). The app displays an outline using your smartphone’s front or rear camera, which helps you better position your face and body. For the best quality photo, however, the app advises against using the front camera; the app claims that the Department of State will likely reject photos taken with the so-called selfie camera, even if you’re not holding the phone yourself. That’s why it’s best to have a friend take your photo using the rear camera.

Passport Photo Creator also lets you set a timer, adjust the exposure compensation (brighter or darker), lock the exposure, and enable flash. It’s best to turn the latter feature off, however, as using the flash can create unwanted shadows or the dreaded red-eye effect. Also, watch out for color shifts and white balance issues, which may be caused by the type of lighting around you.

Julian Chokkattu / Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu / Digital Trends

The cool part about Passport Photo Creator is the compliance checks, which use real-time facial recognition. The app will tell you where the problem areas are and what needs fixing. For example, in one instance the app recognized that we had an uneven, nonwhite background, our subject had glasses on, and his eyes were closed. Once a photo meets all the requirements, you can choose to save it, print it, or send it to the nearest Walgreens for printing and pickup ($14).

Julian Chokkattu / Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu / Digital Trends

If you prefer to have your passport photo mailed to you, another popular app is Passport Photo Booth (iOS, Android). A set of two photos — printed on one 4-inch by 6-inch sheet of photo paper — can be had for $6, and it’s mailed to you within seven to nine days. The app also lets you email the photo (as two 2-inch by 2-inch photos on a 4-inch by 6-inch canvas; six 2-inch by 2-inch photos that cover the entire 4-inch by 6-inch canvas; or a single 2-inch by 2-inch photo), or save it to a camera roll. You can also use the square photos in your social media profile, and both the latter options allow you to print at home or send to a pharmacy via an app like Walgreens or CVS.

Another app to consider is the ItsEasy.com Passport Renewal and Photo (iOS, Android). Like the aforementioned options, the cross-platform app guides you in taking a proper passport photo. In addition to having the photos sent to you ($5+), you can also apply it to a passport application, which ItsEasy.com can facilitate.

Shoot and print at home

Do you have a digital camera, inkjet printer, and photo paper? Save yourself the money and a drive to the drugstore by printing your passport photos at home. After all, you’d be doing it the same way most pharmacies do, but you can take the time to get a photo you actually like.

The best place to start is the Department of State’s official passport website. The site lays out what needs to be in your passport photo, and there are guidelines for taking self-portraits. You can have a companion take the photo for you, or set it on a tripod and use a timer or remote (most modern digital cameras have Wi-Fi and companion apps that will even let you preview the photo and trigger the camera from your smartphone). For positioning, the camera should be at least four feet away, perhaps farther depending on the lens (avoid using a wide-angle lens for a more flattering portrait). Whatever you do, don’t hold the camera in your hands.

Make sure that the photo is properly exposed (not too bright or too dark), and that the subject is facing directly ahead, with their eyes open. If there’s a shadow, you will need to adjust the lighting (usually caused by overhead lighting) and retake the photo. Keep in mind, even if you’re an advanced photographer, this is not the time to get fancy with your lighting setup. Use a flat, even light that shows your entire face clearly.

The background must be white or off-white, without any distracting patterns or textures. A smooth white wall is perfect. A white sheet, if suspended evenly without any wrinkles, can work. We would avoid going out and buying an actual photo backdrop, as this will cost more than simply having your photos done at Walgreens.

Be sure to leave spacing at the top and sides of the image (you can crop it to the right dimensions later). The printed photo will need to be 2 x 2 inches, and your head needs to be between 1 and 1 3/8 inches tall. The State Department provides its own tool on its website for cropping your image, but note this is an older tool that requires Adobe Flash Player.

Another online tool we found useful is called PassportPhoto4You. The freemium tool lets you create passport photos for different countries, automatically setting the required photo size and paper for whichever country you pick. Once you upload a portrait, you can then crop and save the photo. If this sounds too involved, you can also use your smartphone and one of the aforementioned apps to take the photo, which you can then save and print.

To print your passport photos, use a color inkjet printer, preferably one that supports photo paper. Don’t use a laser printer, as it doesn’t support photo paper. A portable photo printer like Epson’s PictureMate PM400 is handy for a task such as this, and it even has a built-in passport photo template. Also, because 2-inch by 2-inch photo paper doesn’t exist, you will need to print on 4-inch by 6-inch paper and manually cut it out. Use a photo-editing app to ensure the photo will print at the proper size, and do not resize it in the print menu.

Professional photo services will always give you two passport photos, but you don’t necessarily need to print two for yourself. Only if there’s an error on your application that needs to be corrected will you need an additional photo.

Our pick

In terms of convenience, we prefer using Passport Photo Creator (iOS, Android) and having our passport photos printed at a local drugstore. Although it’s not the cheapest option, and you’re restricted to one print service, it’s straightforward and hassle-free, and we like the compliance checks. Plus, you can pick up a print relatively quickly.

If you belong to AAA or a membership warehouse, however, it’s often cheaper to go through them than a pharmacy. If you have time, you can also use one of the aforementioned apps and have photos sent directly to you, which is another low-cost option. And for those who like to tinker, taking and printing your own passport photos isn’t difficult. You merely need to follow a few basic rules, assuming you already have the right set of supplies and equipment.

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