SAN FRANCISCO They would depart for China in two days. That had been the plan, anyway. The Collivers, Paul and Sharen, were all packed and prepped, eager for an adventure far removed from their lives as almond farmers south of Fresno.
But when Paul talked about the trip to a friend who had recently traveled to China, the guy happened to mention in passing something about a tourist visa.
What? A visa? For China? The travel agent never mentioned a visa. Isn't a passport all that's needed?
"We freaked out," Sharen said. "We weren't sure what to do."
That's why, less than 48 hours before their transcontinental flight would take off from Los Angeles to Beijing, the Collivers found themselves in a nondescript office on the 16th floor of the old Standard Oil Building in San Francisco's Financial District.
They had come, bearing paperwork, 2-inch photos, passports and a cashier's check, to seek help from a passport and visa "expediting service," fittingly named Passportsandvisas.com. These third-party agents can do in days, often mere hours, what normally would take weeks of waiting to accomplish.
Expediters an industry spokesman says there are more than 100 throughout the U.S. act as bureaucratic sherpas for travelers, leading them through the morass of governmental red tape and foreign requirements that can intimidate even the savviest of travelers.
They do it for a pretty penny, of course.
The Collivers, for example, already had their passports but had no clue how to get a rushed tourist visa from the Chinese Consulate. For a $129 fee not counting the $170 the Chinese Consulate charges to issue the visa Passportsandvisas.com guaranteed the couple it could FedEx the visas to their home in a day.
"But I was too nervous and I knew my husband wouldn't go for that," Sharen said. "So we drove up here last night to be here first thing in the morning."
So there they stood, kind of sheepish and more than a little frantic, at 9:45 a.m. in front of Michael Cordova, whose calm demeanor and pleasantly modulated voice is the verbal equivalent of Valium.
"This is definitely faster than doing it yourself," Cordova had been saying before the Collivers came in the office. "You don't have to wait in line. That, in itself, is worth it. It's worry-free."
Speaking of worrying, the couple were assured by Cordova that by 3 p.m. 4 at the very latest they would have their visas and be good to go. What he didn't tell them was that theirs was just one of about 10 passport and visa requests he and his courier, Adam Aranzaso, would be handling that day. It actually was a slow day for the crew; sometimes, they are swamped when the FedEx guy comes at 9:30 with new requests.
Aranzaso would soon be hightailing it to the U.S. passport regional center, about a 10-minute walk, to deliver same-day expedited requests before the 10:30 a.m. cutoff. (Passportsandvisas.com passport rates range from $69 for 10-day service to $199 for same-day.) Then he'd take the 38 Geary bus to the Chinese Consulate in Japantown for same-day visa requests and catch the bus again to do the same at the Indian Consulate on Sixth and Mission streets. There was a noon deadline for those.
All that the Collivers needed to know was that, yes, they'd get the visa today and, no, they wouldn't miss their flight.
It's this type of peace of mind that has turned the passport expediting business into a thriving service in the travel industry. Robert L. Smith Jr., executive director of the National Association of Passport and Visa Services, says that having such third-party agents deal with the paperwork is as old as passports themselves.
"But with the advent of the Internet, it's become more affordable and quicker" for customers to use expediting companies, Smith said.
Plus, in a post-Sept. 11 world with stricter travel restrictions, there is a greater need for passports. The Bureau of Consular Affairs reports that 11 million passports were issued in the U.S. last year, raising the number of Americans with passports to a record 35 percent.
Depending on the time of year, it can often take as long as 10 weeks for passport-seekers to get a new or a renewed passport through the customary method by mail. Those seeking a rushed passport can make an appointment at the regional center (San Francisco is the closest to Sacramento) and go through the steps themselves, but it often can take two weeks to a month to get a time slot. Expediting a passport by mail often takes two to three weeks, even with overnight delivery.
Expediting services, Smith said, do not have to pay a special fee to the government or get a licensing agreement to ply their trade. In fact, many regional passport offices (and some foreign consulates, for visas) reserve special windows for the expediters because of their high volume of business.
"There is a registration process we must go through, requiring that all firms certify that their employees are free from having any federal crimes," he said. "Each regional office sets its own rules about how many (passports) an expediter can submit, at what time of day they can submit, when they can pick them up."
Cordova said the San Francisco regional center has given Passportsandvisas.com a daily limit of two guaranteed same-day turnaround slots, six two-day slots and 10 "mail out" slots, in which the finished passport is mailed within seven to 10 days to the recipient.
What makes the couriers' lives hectic is that they have precious little time to receive the requests from FedEx at 9:30, examine the documents to make sure there are no errors, then make it to the passport office by 10:30.
So, while the Collivers went shopping in Union Square and prepared to have lunch, Aranzaso walked briskly down busy city streets. As he entered the passport building and took the elevator to the fifth floor, he looked at the time on his iPhone 10:12 a.m.
"You'll see," he says. "We've got our own window. People sometimes give you a dirty look and say you're cutting in line. We explain that we're an expediter."
After breezing through the security checkpoint both guards knew him by name Aranzaso weaved through two lines about 30 deep of people waiting simply to get a number for service. Those already with numbers filled the six rows of plastic straight-back chairs, as the drone of CNN from a flat-screen TV on the wall battled with crying babies for aural supremacy.
Aranzaso, undeterred, strode up to Window 11, where a sign read "Courier Drop Off." In 47 seconds, he had handed over the documents to the clerk, picked up his receipts and was on his way back to the street.
"It won't be quite so easy at the Chinese Consulate," he said.
This is another thing neither Cordova of Aronzaso told the Collivers. Sometimes, it's not so easy get in and out of the Chinese Consulate, even for expediters.
"There often are protests outside about the Tibet situation," Aronzaso said. "And some days, it's just so busy the lines for visas are out the door."
Foreign consulates, too, can be sticklers for details. For instance, on his application, Paul Colliver typed out his full name under the heading "Given Name." That would automatically get a rejection. But Cordova caught the mistake and dabbed a little Wite-Out on it.
"Some countries have been known to reject (applications) because it hasn't been all capitalized," Cordova said. "See this line right here that says, 'Local ID' number? What do you think that is? Some people think it's the Social Security number. But it's your driver's license or state-issued ID number.
"The traveling public, by and large, just doesn't know how it works, and I totally get that. We're willing to hold their hand every step of the way."
By 11 a.m., Aranzaso stood before Window 6 at the Chinese Consulate, interacting with a worker in a blue blazer all workers wore the same type of blue blazer whose name tag read "Josephine." He mistakenly handed her Paul's passport with Sharen's paperwork, and Josephine arched a brow and pointed at the blue booklet in Aronzaso's hand. He realized his mistake and passed it through the slot in the double-paned glass.
Then Aronzaso was off to the India office, where a portrait of Gandhi smiled beatifically down upon the applicants waiting in line.
By 1:15, he was back at the Chinese Consulate to hand over the cashier's check and pick up the Collivers' visas. Fifteen minutes later, Aronzaso met the couple in front of Macy's in Union Square to hand them their papers and wish them a good trip.
From there, the Collivers drove home to Selma, south of Fresno, where Paul said he was going to do some last-minute work at the farm and Sharen was going to check and double-check to make sure everything was ready for their trip.
The last thing they needed, at that point, was more surprises.
How to obtain a U.S. passport or get one renewed
Getting a new passport or renewing an expired one can be a time-consuming process. But it is possible to do it yourself with proper planning.
Here are some facts and tips to help you "get your papers." For more information, go to www.travel.state.gov.
When do you need a passport?
For travel in all foreign countries, including Mexico and Canada.
What is the price?
For an adult passport: $135 (new), $110 (renew). For minors under age 16: $105.
What if you're just traveling to Mexico, Canada or the Caribbean?
There is a less expensive Passport Card program for those countries. Passport cards are $55 for adults ($30 for renewals) and $40 for minors under age 16.
When must you apply in person for a new passport?
If you are applying for your first U.S. passport, if you are under age 16, if your previous U.S. passport was issued when you were under age 16, if your previous U.S. passport was lost, stolen, or damaged, if your previous U.S. passport was issued more than 15 years ago, or if your name has changed since your U.S. passport was issued and you are unable to legally document your name change.
How long does it take to get a new or renewed passport?
Usually between four to 10 weeks.
Can you get expedited service without using a third-party agent?
Yes. The cost for expedited service is an additional $60, plus another $12.72 if you want overnight delivery.
How long does it take with expedited service done directly through the passport service?
Currently, two to three weeks.
Where can I apply in person?
There are 9,000 facilities nationwide, including many post offices, state courts and city and county offices. In Sacramento, you can apply at Historic City Hall, 915 I St.
When can I mail in a passport request?
Only renewers whose old passports were issued within the past 15 years and have not been damaged or stolen may apply through the mail.
How do you renew a passport?
Fill out a DS-82 form (which can be downloaded from the State Department website, www.travel.state.gov), place it in an envelope with your most recent passport, a 2-by-2 inch photo and a check. Mail to National Passport Processing, P.O. Box 13408, Philadelphia, PA 19101-3408.
What do you do if your passport book is running out of pages?
If your book is below four empty pages, it's best to add more. Send your passport, a DS-4085 form and $82 to the National Passport Processing Center.