I was chatting at the coffee machine yesterday with a buddy - let's call him Mike - who was just back from paternity leave. He was showing me many, many pictures of his baby son - we can thank Apple and Google for making death-by-mobile-photostream a thing - and mentioned in passing that he'd spent half the morning phoning around local post offices to make a passport appointment so they could go en famille to visit his brother's family in NZ.
"But you said you're not planning to go until October?" I pointed out, puzzled.
Well, it turns out that if you're applying for your first US passport, you can't just send off a few forms. The American passport application form (DS-11) isn't as bad as you might think if you've dealt with other US government forms, but first passports and passports for any under-16 child require that you appear in person at an "acceptance facility". This, in practice, means one of a small number of passport offices, some city clerk offices, or a subset of US post offices. Passport offices allow you to turn up on the day; city clerks and post offices are appointment-only. The appointments are usually only available 3-4 days per week - not weekends, natch - and only a few hours per day, e.g. midday through 4pm.
After canvassing four or five different venues to get a handle on availability, Mike had managed to find himself an appointment for Wednesday 2nd August as the earliest available - ignoring all other scheduling concerns. That's 2 months hence.
"That's a bit tight for an October flight - why not go in person?" I wondered. Unsurprisingly Mike had already done the research, and pointed me to the Yelp reviews for Willow Glen Passport Station, San Jose as a guide to what he'd be dealing with:
#1 tip is get there early - and I mean 3, 4, 5, 6 AM early (the doors open at 10 AM). There will always always be a line. I talked to so many people who just expected to walk up and have their application processed. Even if it LOOKS like there are only 2 or 3 people in front of you, it's entirely possible they are saving a spot for additional people. We thought we were 7th in line but once everyone's relatives showed up at 10, it was more like 15th in line.Do you think that there might be a demand signal here? (In case you think Willow Glen is a special case, read the Eastridge reviews.)
Weekends have WAY more people in line and some people have been known to show up as early as 3 AM. We took off work on a weekday just for this reason. Arriving at 4:30 or 5 AM on a weekday SHOULD ensure you're near the front of the line.
Arrived at 4:30. Nine families were there already. At 5, about 20 people. At 6 about 30 people. Total 50 numbers were issued. Therefore, after 6 am chance is small. Numbers were given out by post office employee at 9:55. Got in at 10. Finished at 11:10. Staffs are nice and professional.
Got in the line at 3.20AM. There were 15 folks ahead of me. Long line formed behind me by 8AM. A post office employee came out at 8AM and said "if the applicants are in the line, please come inside, 10 at a time, and I'll validate the forms". Chaos ensued, since most of the folks in the line were holding a spot for their families. Eventually things calmed down. The employee was out again and stated that they would only process 30 passport applications (not 30 customers).
What I took away from those reviews is that the passport station staff (generally) were individually trying to do a good job and make things run smoothly, e.g. by pre-validating application forms, but were totally ham-strung by being desperately under-staffed relative to the demand. Similarly, the city clerks and post offices had no incentive at all to add staff and expand the number of face-to-face appointments. It looks like they're limited to claiming $25/person fees so there's no ability to raise fees to respond to demand, and hence no reason to hire extra staff to increase their processing capacity because that's probably below the employment cost here in Silicon Valley.
I remain completely baffled by Americans who want more Federal government involvement in their lives. This is what Federal government involvement looks like. (At the state level, they should examine the well-oiled customer-service-friendly machine that is the Department of Motor Vehicles.)