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Good time to get a passport

There's no Christmas rush, one official says, but by early next year business will get heavy, thanks to new rules.

Consider this a gentle reminder from your friendly neighborhood passport office:

Get off your duff.

New requirements are going into effect next year for travelers to show their passports in order to travel by land or sea into Bermuda, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. Last winter, when the government set a deadline requiring passports for air travel to these countries, it set off a massive panic resulting in ridiculous delays, absurdly long lines, widespread chaos, missed flights and a ton of overtime for the staffs at offices in Philadelphia and other passport centers.

"There was a 60 percent increase in applications between March and June last year," says Orlando Rivera, regional director of the Philadelphia Passport Agency. "Passport services went from processing 12 million in 2006 to 18.4 million in 2007. Next year, we're expecting more than 20 million."

He has framed photos of the queues that wrapped around the corner outside the U.S. Customs House at Second and Chestnut Streets over the summer.

This fall, they dwindled to nothing. This month, the staff, which had been working feverishly for so long, had the time to decorate a holiday evergreen.

"We're quiet, for now," says Rivera. "By February, it will crank up again."

He shakes his head ruefully. "A lot of people are working on being president of the procrastination club. Sooner or later, you're going to need a passport to cross the borders. And goshalmighty. Do you want to stand in line those countless hours?"

In other words, now is the time to apply.

As of January 2008, according to the U.S. State Department Web site, "U.S. and Canadian citizens will need to present either a Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative-compliant document, or a government-issued photo ID, such as a driver's license, plus proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate."

The department says that by next summer, most U.S. citizens entering the United States at sea or land ports of entry will need, "either a U.S. passport, a U.S. passport card, a trusted traveler card such as NEXUS, FAST, or SENTRI, a valid Merchant Mariner Document (MMD) when traveling in conjunction with official maritime business or a valid U.S. military identification card when traveling on official orders."

Note to the vain: There are a lot of cheap places in Center City to go to get your passport photo taken, and there's absolutely no need to get it done professionally. The UPS Store at 51 N. Third and the CVS at 421 S. Second charge about $15. The one closest to the passport agency - Passport Photo Service at 140 Chestnut St. - is more expensive: It costs $27.77 there for those two little pictures.