With passport policies in place, it's a good time to brush up on the basics

It didn't look like a very long line. Just four families ahead of me, that's all. This wouldn't take more than 15 minutes, I optimistically guesstimated.

An hour later, I had moved up one spot. The woman behind me had bailed half an hour ago, leaving me and my new line neighbor to chat about why we were waiting there in the first place.

The U.S. government has changed federal passport policies, and as of January of this year, simply having a birth certificate will no longer suffice for getting out of - and more importantly, back into - the country. Travelers must now present a valid passport when flying from the United States to Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. As early as January of next year, they'll need a passport if they're traveling to those places by land or sea, too.

Because I had lost my passport in a recent move and have a trip planned in the near future, well, here I was in line at the Suwanee post office. As it turns out, long passport lines are becoming more common. Because of the new regulations, a lot more people are applying for passports, causing longer lines and longer turnover, according to the U.S. Department of State.

From my line-time observation, I gleaned a bit of wisdom: If you're nice to your passport agent, your agent will be nice to you. This is important, as they hold the key to you successfully obtaining your passport.

The passport process

Depending on the circumstance, the process for obtaining a passport varies. If you've never had a passport or yours has expired, you fill out one set of papers. If you're a minor, you have a different set of paperwork. If you've had a passport but it's been stolen or you've lost it - ahem, me - then the paperwork is a whole other ball game.

The first hurdle in the process is finding the local passport office. In most cases, you have to apply in person. Luckily, there are 13 regional passport agencies (the closest of these to Atlanta is in New Orleans) and more than 8,000 passport acceptance facilities across the country, often located in a local post office. For a complete list of offices, visit the U.S. Travel Web site, www.travel.state.gov/passport.

When applying for a passport, you'll need two identical color photographs, and some application facilities offer this service on-site. On the passport Web site, this service will be noted. Drugstores such as Walgreens and CVS also offer passport photos.

Now, on to the paper work.

Passport newbies will need the basic Application for Passport form, proof of citizenship (such as a birth certificate), those two photos, a Social Security number and the application fee. If the applicant is a minor under the age of 14, they'll need all those things as well as evidence of a relationship to a parent or guardian, such as a birth certificate; parental identification (driver's license should be fine) and a parental application permission form.

Passports do expire, and the length of time one is valid depends on how old you were when it was first issued. Typically, adult passports are valid for 10 years. A passport issued when you were 15 years old or younger is only valid for five years.

Renewing a passport is simpler than obtaining one, as it can be completed by mail. To renew a passport, mail the completed Application for Passport by Mail form, your most recent passport, two identical color passport photos and a $67 application fee to the National Passport Processing office.

If your name has changed since the most recent passport was issued, you must also include certified legal documentation of the name change. Be sure not to send a photocopy - it will be denied.

For the slightly scatterbrained who have lost their passport or for the unfortunate individuals who have had a passport stolen, there are a few extra forms to fill out. If your passport was stolen, report the theft to the U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Lost or stolen passports must be invalidated before a new one can be issued, and can be declared as such by completing a Lost or Stolen Passport form and mailing it to the U.S. Department of State, Passport Services. This should wipe your slate clean, as if you never had a passport.

To replace the passport, follow the same guidelines for receiving a first-time passport.

Paying the fee

Waiting in line for your travel documentation can take up a big chunk of your day (my grand line-time total was more than two hours), and paying for your passport may take a toll on your wallet. For applicants under the age of 16, the application fees are $82. For those older than 16, the total cost is $97. Renewing your passport is $67.

It can take anywhere from six weeks to about two months to receive your new passport. Tack on an additional $60 for an expedition fee and you'll be guaranteed the passport will arrive within two weeks.

Passport fee payments can be made with cash, check, credit or debit cards, but not ATM cards. Money orders and bank drafts can also be used.

Along the way, you can check the status of your passport's progress online. Also online, you can obtain all the aforementioned forms, find local facilities, as well as read up on a surplus of passport information.

The one thing you won't find, though, is how to take a decent passport photo. That remains a mystery.

More info

•For more passport information, visit www.travel.state.gov/passport.