The University of Iowa

Travel Documentation

Do Not Wait Until The Last Minute to Get Your Documentation! Processing times for passports and visas are much slower than usual due to the pandemic. Even if you will not study abroad this year, if you plan to do so before graduation it is advisable to go ahead and get your passport now.

passport photo and plane ticket

The Passport:

What it is:

U.S. passports are issued by the U.S. Department of State for US citizens; citizens of other countries have passports issued by their own government. No matter where you are headed, you will be required to have a valid passport prior to going abroad. The U.S. Department of State offers a passport book and a passport card (note: the card is valid for travel ONLY via land and sea, not air travel, between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, Caribbean, Bermuda; the passport book is required for all travel, including studying abroad). Some study abroad programs require that you have a valid passport book when you apply. Even if your program does not require this, it is a good idea to start processing a passport application as soon as you know you will be going abroad. For adults, U.S. passports are currently valid for ten years from the date of issue.

In addition to a valid passport book, some countries require that your passport book is valid for at least 6 months past the date that you plan on returning to the U.S. Depending on the immigration requirements of the country where you will travel, you may also need to submit an application for a visa well in advance of departure. It is easy to check on the visa requirements for most countries by visiting to access a search engine that provides details based on your citizenship, location, and type of visa.

How to get one:

If you have never had a U.S. passport before you must submit your application in person at a passport office. Passport applications are available online or from a passport office. Processing times vary. It is currently advisable to allow at least 18 weeks for regular processing. 

If you have left things to the last minute, it is possible to apply for an expedited passport. Expedited service by mail can still take up to three months in non-emergency situations and costs more than regular service. For extreme emergencies, it is possible to apply in person at a Regional Passport Agency. The nearest Passport Agency is in Chicago and you must have an advance appointment to be able to use their services. If you are in a situation where you think you need to expedite a passport application, please consult your Study Abroad Advisor.

What to do with it while you are abroad:

Important! Before you go abroad be sure to make two photocopies of the biometric pages of your passport (your personal information, photograph, and signature): leave one copy with someone at home and take the other copy with you. If you have a current visa in your passport, make a copy of that as well. Keep your copies separate from your actual passport in case the original is lost or stolen. You may also want to take a certified copy of your birth certificate with you as proof of ID in case your passport is stolen.

The Visa

What it is:

A visa foil is typically a sticker that is affixed to a blank page in your passport, obtained from a foreign consulate or embassy, that grants you permission from that foreign government to enter and remain their country for a limited period of time. Sometimes visas (or entry stamps) are obtained from passport control/customs as you enter a foreign country airport or cross a land border. However, most of the time, the visa is something that must be acquired in advance and while in the U.S. They are issued for specific purposes, such as work, travel, tourism, or study. The category of visa, application process and the way that they are issued depends on the particular country, the length of time that you will be in the country and the consulate office that has jurisdiction for the part of the U.S. where you are a student or permanent resident. Even if you are only planning to travel for a short time, some countries require a visa—particularly if travel includes countries outside of western Europe. The U.S. State Department keeps track of the types of visa requirements other countries have for U.S. citizens through their country-specific information pages.

Potential complications:

Please note that it can be difficult and time-consuming to acquire a visa. Sometimes there are requirements which are difficult to meet, documents that are difficult to obtain and timelines which must be strictly met in order to receive a visa. Sometimes travel to a consular office (in Chicago or further away) is required by the person applying for the visa. Consulates can limit visa application submissions to specific days and/or times and the offices are often short-staffed. Consulates observe their own country national holidays and usually observe U.S. federal holidays which can result in unexpected closures. For these reasons, it is important to begin your visa application process as soon as you are eligible to do so (typically coinciding with acceptance into your study abroad program).

How to get one:

Your Study Abroad Advisor can help you determine if a visa is necessary, but it is ultimately the student's responsibility to have the necessary passport/visa documents for the program abroad. If a visa is required, your Study Abroad Advisor can help you set up an appointment with the Participant Services Specialist in the Study Abroad office for assistance putting together your visa application and understanding the requirements and process. In most cases, study abroad programs provide information about visa processing; also UI has an agreement with CIBTvisas/iowa for visa assistance. In all cases, each consulate has final authority in determining the current visa requirements. It is your responsibility to assemble your application and required documents in order to get the visa from the appropriate consulate. Our Participant Services Specialist can help to demystify the process.

Passport and Visa Photos:

In order to obtain a passport and foreign visa, official passport photos are required. Passport photos must meet strict guidelines and are not typically something that an amateur photographer can take and print. One color photo, taken within the last six months, must be submitted with a passport application; the number of photos (although photos submitted with visa applications must be identical) and the composition of the photos for foreign visas vary. In Iowa City, there are multiple businesses and locations where passport photo services are offered. Photos are available at the USPS Passport Office and some places where one-hour passport photos are offered (CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, etc.)

 AAA Travel Agency offers member discounts for passport photos (need to show member card). Other businesses may also have special offers. The cost and quality of this service can vary so be certain that the photographs meet all requirements for the passport/visa. Be sure to bring any extra photos along with you when you go abroad!

Residence Permits

This is permission to remain in another country for an extended period. Some study abroad programs will assist participants with the paperwork necessary to obtain a residence permit. For some countries, an FBI background check may be required prior to travel, and a police station or city government office visit may be needed when you reach your host country.

Emergency Processing

If you have left things to the last minute, it is possible to apply for an expedited passport. If you are applying for a renewal passport and your previous passport was issued within the last 15 years and when you were 16 years old or over, you may do this through the mail.

However, if you are applying for a U.S. passport for the first time (or if you are applying for a renewal and your previous passport was issued when you were under 16), you must apply in person at a US passport agency. Applying for an expedited passport involves an extra $60 fee, plus any mailing fees (in addition to the routine service fee of $145).

For more information, contact the USPS Passport Agent at the Iowa City Post Office, 925 Highway 6 E, Iowa City, IA 52240, an appointment is necessary, no walk-in services

Passport Agencies

It is also possible to use the services of an agency. For a fee, the agency will handle your applications and help you obtain a passport and visas quickly. 

  • CIBTVisas 800-929-2428 (passport processing)
  • CIBTVisas/iowa 800-929-2428 (visa processing - also access to visa search engine)