More and more, people are taking advantage of this best-kept secret - the ability to apply for a passport in Waxahachie.

The service is offered by the Ellis County District Clerk’s Office, which is housed in the old Wal-Mart building on North U.S. Highway 77.

That service becomes even more important when new requirements adopted by Congress in 2004 as part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative go into effect next week.

As of Jan. 23, Americans traveling by air to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, South America, Central America and the Caribbean will need a passport for entry and reentry.

The district clerk’s office processes passports five days a week, with applications accepted from 8-11:30 a.m. and from 1-3:30 p.m. The cut-off time in the afternoon allows all of that day’s applications to be processed and submitted that day.

The office has seen as many as 54 people in one day come in to file for a passport.

“We just did that a couple of weeks ago, and for a small place like us, that’s a lot,” said deputy clerk Donna Brooks, whose primary duty is to process the applications. Another four clerks are trained to assist Brooks as needed.

The office typically sees from 20 to 30 applications in a day, with Brooks noting there’s seldom a long line.

People should allow at least six weeks to obtain a passport through regular processing. They will need to take a certified raised-seal copy of their birth certificate, two passport photos, a photo identification such as a valid driver license, military ID or state-issued ID and their completed application to the clerk’s office, along with the required fees.

Children younger than age 14 must have both parents present unless a notarized affidavit from the absent parent is presented.

Applications are available at the clerk’s office. At this time, the passport fee is $67 for an adult and $52 for a child, with the fee to be paid with a check or money order. The clerk’s office charges a $30 processing fee, which is paid in cash.

The expedited service available through the clerk’s office reduces the wait time to two weeks, but at an additional cost, with the passport fee increasing to $127 for an adult and $112 for a child. The clerk’s fee on the expedited service remains the same, however, at $30 cash.

“If anyone is close to the six-week time frame (when they have to have a passport), I always recommend the expedited service,” Brooks said. “I know it’s an additional $60, and I know it’s a lot of money, but it’s $60 well-spent.”

From what Brooks has heard in the way of feedback from people obtaining their passports through the clerk’s office, the timeframes have been accurate as far as the turnaround time.

Immediate processing

People who forget to apply on a timely basis or who have an emergency come up requiring they travel out of the country do have several options - although those aren’t local.

There are services that expedite processing - but that comes at an increased cost on top of the other fees. The services can be found online or through a travel agent, and a passport can typically be obtained within 72 hours.

“But it’s at a substantial cost,” Brooks said, noting people also can make an appointment at the National Passport Agency in Houston to obtain their passport within 24 hours.

Another alternative

In a recent press release, AAA advised that its agencies serve as “one-stop service centers” by providing assistance with passport applications, passport photos, travelers’ cheques, international driving permits, foreign currency, preloaded debit cards and other services.

“Americans need to appreciate the potential hassles that come with waiting until the last moment to get their passports,” said Robert L. Darbelnet, president and CEO of AAA. “Canada and Mexico are the biggest international destinations for U.S. travelers and the first months of the year are high season for travel to the Caribbean and Mexico.”

Through a partnership with Travisa, a visa processing company, AAA members and nonmembers alike can get a new passport in as little as one business day by paying an additional processing fee.

Travisa also processes travel visas for Americans and Canadians traveling overseas.

“There are a number of good reasons to have a passport, such as last minute vacation opportunities or overseas emergencies,” said Darbelnet. “A passport also is one of the most universally accepted forms of identification in North America.”

According to recent figures released by the U.S. Department of Commerce, 20 million Americans visited Mexico and 14 million Americans visited Canada in 2005.

E-mail JoAnn at editor@waxahachiedailylight.com