How to Get a Passport Before an Adoption is Finalized

Jan 19, 2019

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My daughter’s first flight was at 3 days old. My wife and I adopted her, and since she was born in another city and we didn’t know just when she’d become “ours,” we used the flexibility of a mileage ticket to travel at the last minute and to meet the relatively obscure requirements for traveling with an infant less than 7 days old.

You'll be renewing before you turn five
Image by Summer Hull / The Points Guy

The domestic flight we took home with her to begin our life as a family was just the beginning of our travels as a new family of three. My wife and I take quick weekend trips domestically, but also redeem miles for international travel several times a year. Our daughter would most certainly need a passport as soon as possible.

The Complicated Passport Process for an Adopted Newborn

Getting a passport for a newborn isn’t instantaneous, but it also isn’t usually an overly complicated process. But in our case, it was tricky for a number of reasons.

  1. Our adoption wouldn’t be finalized until six months after the placement. Custody rests formally with the adoption agency until that time.
  2. For now, her birth certificate shows her birth mother’s last name, not ours.
  3. She doesn’t have a Social Security number. Commonly with newborn adoptions, those aren’t applied for until the placement is finalized. The IRS offers “adoption tax IDs” to claim tax benefits for adopted children without Social Security numbers, but advises against applying for one if a Social Security number can be obtained before filing tax returns (which applies in our case).
baby with passport
(Photo by LightFieldStudios / Getty Images)

In order to get a passport, we’d need to show that our daughter has proper permission to get one and that we have proper authority to get it for her.

There’s a lot of advice online about getting a passport for an adopted child before an adoption is finalized. Much of it is inconsistent and contradictory. That seems to stem from lack of clear guidance from the Department of State on the issue, as well as luck — how any given passport gets processed in a non-standard situation may vary based on who happens to review your documents. So it seemed useful to share how we successfully got a passport for our adopted daughter on our first try.

Obtaining Adoption Agency Permission

Days after our daughter was born, she was placed in our care. But until the adoption is finalized by a court, legal custody is in the hands of our adoption agency. We’ve taken responsibility for her care but do not, on our own, have the right to obtain a passport. There are forms the Department of State uses when one parent cannot go in person to apply for a minor’s passport or when one parent cannot be located. There are no forms for when an adoption agency must provide the consent, so we asked our agency for a letter.

Apparently, getting a passport for a child that’s going through the adoption process is unusual, and the agency wanted to make sure they didn’t incur liability by authorizing it. So they asked us for two things: a doctor’s note attesting to our daughter’s health and fitness for international travel and a court to sign off on the passport. We got both of those things, and the agency provided a letter. However, I was still worried whether the Department of State would accept it — it wasn’t one of the department’s forms.

Obtaining a Court Order

In our state, an adoption isn’t finalized for six months. However, we had our attorney file the finalization paperwork with the court right away, so we could include it with our application packet. It’s not clear that’s necessary, but it shows something official-looking that would help the clerk reviewing our daughter’s passport application understand that we were appropriately applying on her behalf — and that would also further help explain why our daughter currently has a different last name than ours.

Our adoption agency wanted us to go a step further, to make them feel better about granting permission for the passport. They agency felt it would be better covered from a liability perspective if we had the actual permission of the court to obtain the passport.

court gavel
(Photo by Chris Ryan / Getty Images)

The state court has no jurisdiction in such matters, but we filed a motion with the court asking them to approve our obtaining a passport on behalf of our daughter. This cost about $500 in legal and court fees. We, therefore, had a court ordering the issuance of a passport, which couldn’t hurt in persuading the Department of State to issue one. At the very least, it may have meant more work for the caseworker to deny the passport, since they’d have to document and explain why they were doing so in spite of a court saying that they should approve it, which would also involve explaining why the court lacked jurisdiction.

I strive to create a path of least resistance for a government department to approve the request, and the court order helped accomplish that. In our case, it wasn’t really optional because the agency wouldn’t provide permission for the passport without the order.

Gathering Documents

One by one, I gathered the documents we’d need to obtain a passport. I filled out the passport application with our daughter’s name as it matches her birth certificate. The form asked for other names she’s gone by and I gave the name she is going to have once the adoption is finalized, since that’s listed on our adoption petition that I planned to include in the packet. I listed her Social Security number as all zeros.

I completed the affidavit that she’s never had a Social Security number and obtained a copy of our daughter’s birth certificate with her birth name, even though that’s soon going to change. I included the adoption agency’s permission letter and the photo of our daughter. The adoption finalization filing and court order approving our request to obtain a passport were also included in the packet we prepared.

TPG has great advice for how to take a passport photo of an infant and I wish I had read it before trying to get our daughter’s photo taken. We took her to the local CVS, and fortunately, the clerk there had done it before and got things squared away in minutes. The trick was getting her to keep her eyes open for the photo.

taking baby photo with smartphone
(Photo by Westend61 / Getty Images)

Now we were ready to (hopefully) get the passport. I went in knowing that I was going to have to go through this process all over again in just a few months’ time when the adoption is finalized. At that time we’ll be changing our daughter’s last name to ours. She’ll then get a new birth certificate and will need a new passport. But at least, we’d be able to travel internationally for several months with her in the meantime. While the process will be a bit different in our case, you can check out TPG‘s guide to updating travel documents after a name change.

Making an Appointment and Appearing in Person

Passport applications for all children under 16 have to be made in person and demonstrate a parental relationship. Approved passports will only be valid for five years rather than the normal 10 for adults. (Here are four things to know about US passports for children.) In-person applications are made at an acceptance facility, which includes many post offices and several government buildings, like courthouses.

We selected the post office that was nearest to us, which offered flexible hours and allowed us to book an online appointment as that seemed the most efficient path. It also turned out to be a mistake. On the day of our appointment, we showed up and were welcomed into the side office where they process passports. The clerk started going through our documents and saw on our DS-11 passport application form that our daughter did not have a Social Security number. As instructed, we had entered zeros for her Social Security number and included a signed and dated statement on a separate page:

“I declare under penalty of perjury under the laws of the United States of America that the following is true and correct: (Child’s full name) has never been issued a Social Security number by the Social Security Administration.”

The postal clerk refused to process the application. I showed him on the State Department website that this was proper, but he still refused. He said he didn’t care, he wouldn’t process an application without a Social Security number. It didn’t matter what the Department of State said — on this matter, he was the final word. We walked out.

We decided that a post office might not be the best place to get this done after all. The local courthouse is a passport acceptance facility, and I made a bet that it would be more used to seeing non-standard legal documents. It didn’t offer appointments but did take walk-ins. We headed there straight away, parked, went through courthouse security and found the clerk’s office where passport applications are processed. There was no one else waiting and we were helped straight away.

The clerk wasn’t sure what to do or whether our documents met the requirements for a passport, since she’d never dealt with a case like this — but she picked up the phone and called someone who told her that she should package everything up and send it in and let the State Department decide.

So that’s what she did. She went through our documents, took a check and shipped everything off. Since the trip we wanted to take was more than six weeks away, she advised against spending extra for premium processing. I wanted the chance, though, to address any errors or even do the whole process over if the clerk at the State Department reviewing our daughter’s application didn’t approve our submission so paid for faster processing.

After a week, I noticed online that my check for the application had been cashed. I went online to check the passport status and saw that it was pending. However, I was thrilled to see that entering zeros as the last four digits of our daughter’s Social Security number at least pulled up the application.

Even though an email address was provided with the submission, I was asked if I wanted to provide an email address for updates. I did, and a couple of days later got word that her passport was approved. A couple of days after that, it arrived in the mail, paving the way for our world travels.

Bottom Line

Sometimes applying for a passport can be more complicated due to an adoption. Have you arranged for a passport for your adopted child(ren)? How did the process go?

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