Applying for a passport requires a lot of complicated documentation that must be correct – birth certificates, background checks, applications, support letters, etc – but the most common source of delays and rejections comes down to passport photos. We have a whole section below of what constitutes a good (or bad) passport photo.
Without making a total plug here, we’d like to mention the ItsEasy Passport & Visa Passport Renewal & Photo App (available on iTunes & Android) is actually a pretty cool – and free – app that allows you to take photos on your phone. They have people that review the photos and contact you if there are issues. They offer this service complimentary if you are using their passport or visa services but they also offer a free email delivery or paid mailing service so you never have to leave your house. We have a whole page dedicated to the mobile passport and photo app. Pretty neat.
US Passport Photo Requirements
Here is the actual passport photo requirements listed by the State Dept:
- Your head must face the camera directly with full face in view.
- Your head must face the camera directly with full face in view
- You must have a neutral facial expression or a natural smile, with both eyes open
- Taken in clothing normally worn on a daily basis
- Taken in the last 6 months
- Use a plain white or off-white background
- Be sized correctly
• 2 x 2 inches (51 x 51 mm)
• Head must be between 1 -1 3/8 inches (25 - 35 mm) from the bottom of the chin to the top of the head
- Printed on matte or glossy photo quality paper
- Printed in color
- You cannot wear glasses
• If you cannot remove your glasses for medical reasons, please include a signed note from your doctor with application
- You cannot wear a hat or head covering
• If you wear a hat or head covering for religious purposes, submit a signed statement that verifies that the hat or head covering in your photo is part of recognized, traditional religious attire that is customarily or required to be worn continuously in public
• If you wear a hat or head covering for medical purposes, submit a signed doctor's statement verifying the hat or head covering in your photo is used daily for medical purposes
• Your full face must be visible and your hat or head covering cannot obscure your hairline or cast shadows on your face
- You cannot wear headphones or wireless hands-free devices
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Well that’s a lot of requirements for a picture! Ironically though they don’t really focus much on the most common issue which is lighting and shadows. Shadows are caused by the light source being in the wrong place. The most common issue is the light coming from one side which creates brightness on one side of the face and darkness or shadows on the other side. Light that is directly above can cause similar issues. In a perfect world, passport photos are taken when natural or white light would be in front of the person and cast evenly on their face. In the real world, you can find a great place to take a passport photo with decent light, just make sure it is as evenly distributed as possible. Here are some examples of good and bad passport photos:
This is an example of a perfect photo. The size of the head, the lighting, the background, everything is perfect. This is what you’re shooting for. Getting a photo this perfect requires proper lighting and camera geometry and you may not be able to achieve this quality, but if you set your goals high, your photo should be great even if it’s not perfect.
Head Too Big
A common sign of the “at home selfie”. You can’t get the phone far enough away from your face to have your head the right size. This photo would be rejected.
Head Too Small
This is actually a pretty simple mistake to correct by just zooming in or cropping the photo a bit, but if you receive a photo like this at your local drug store, ask for a re-take. This photo “might” actually get through, but the State Dept would be well within their rights to reject it.
Weather they exist behind your head or on your face, shadows are one of the biggest issues with passport photos and one of the more difficult ones to correct. Moving to a different location or sometimes even just turning to a different angle might cure what ails ya, but sometimes you just need a new location altogether.
Dark or Colored Background
We are going for a clean, white background. That can be hard without a proper backdrop and the photo example here would probably be accepted, but any darker than this or even this tone but in another color would likely be rejected.
Objects In Background
At home passport photographers for some reason like to stand in front of doors (maybe they painted everything else in the house and the door is the only white thing there). In office settings they like to stand in front of white boards which create a huge amount of glare. Any objects, patterns, or anything else other than a flat, white background will cause issues for passport photos.
Lack of Common Sense
We have seen some pretty crazy passport photos people have tried to submit and they simply don’t under. Vacation photos, passport pictures taken sitting in your office chair, taking your picture in the bathroom mirror – we’ve seen them all. Have a little common sense.
How To Take Passport Photos
The State Department provides a really great video that covers a lot of the basics of passport photos:
Passport Photo Problems
Let’s address some of the other common issues:
- Chain Stores – Back in the day, most of us went to our local photography store to get our passport photos. The people that worked there were professional or serious armature photographers for the most part and took photos very seriously. We don’t’ like to sound so negative, but nowadays most photography stores have closed down and people end up going to chain stores like Walgreens, CVS, etc. In some cases it’s a lack of proper training or in some cases it’s just lack of “care”, but the photos just aren’t good. If you do end up going somewhere like this and you don’t get a positive vibe that the person taking your photo knows what they are doing, ask for a manager. There is nothing worse than sending in your passport application only to get a letter in the mail from the State Dept several weeks later stating that your photo was not acceptable. Below we provide some examples of good photos and bad photos with explanations so you know what to look for.
- At Home Printing – Those 4”x6” vacation photos you printed out last month looked pretty good, so why not print out your own passport photos and save a few bucks? We’re not saying you can’t, heck, we do it, but there are just some things you need to be careful about. Among getting the photo taken and sized correctly, check your paper and printer quality. You must use matte or glossy photo quality paper and print exactly 2” x 2” at least 300 dpi (600 dpi preferred). Any printing lines or other defects will cause rejection. As for getting the actual picture set up correctly, please make sure to review the information lower on this page.
- Old Photos – You looked so darn good in your last passport and you just happen to have the same picture lying around that you used the last time 8 years ago, so why not just use that? The State Dept is very strict about the photo being “recent” (defined as within the last 6 months). If you have used the same photo for another passport (or possibly other government applications) the State Dept will catch it and reject it, delaying your passport application. Even if there is no proof that that the photo is old, they can make judgement calls (the criteria for this can vary but does come up sometimes, and even if they are wrong you’ll need to send in new photos)