Need a New Year's resolution? Here's one: Renew your passport first thing.
If it expires any time in the coming year, this is a must.The U.S. Passport Service says that at this time of year you can get your new passport back by mail in two weeks. Things may not run that speedily again until well into the fall.
If you are an adult, your passport expires 10 years from the date you got it, 5 if you are under 18 years.
A member of my family who traveled for a living recently found he could not leave for London from Kennedy International Airport in New York as scheduled because his passport would be expired by the date on his return ticket two months later.
A friend who was mugged and injured in Italy was unaware that she did not have to keep a passport showing her with a wired jaw and a black eye; that she could renew it for any reason at all - and bad photos are a common reason - at anytime.
You do not need to have definite travel plans to get a passport; an official in New York says that he frequently scolds people in news organizations because they often allow their passports to lapse and are thus not ready for unexpected overseas assignments.
Those who have relatives living overseas should always have valid passports in case of an emergency.
There are other reasons for moving briskly this January.
The State Department, to which the Passport Service is attached, has no budget because Congress and President Bush are still working on it, and the passport people are employing "creative solutions," in the words of one official, to avoid the summer crush.
One step is to enforce anew some old rules designed to spread the work evenly to all regional offices and to move most passports out by mail as a way of avoiding lines in the vacation season.
First, all new or renewed passports will be mailed to the applicant, rather than held for pickup in person, unless there is acute time pressure.
In areas where mail service is good, Washington, D.C., for example, a rush request would have to involve a departure within 10 working days, or the applicant would have to show that before leaving visas would have to be obtained for countries whose procedures are slow.
In New York and Los Angeles, where mail is slow, an applicant might be able to pick up a passport even when the departure was further off.
Proof, in the form of a copy of an itinerary from a travel agent or a copy of an airline ticket, will be required with a rush request.
Second, the passport application should go through whichever of the 13 regional passport offices is nearest to the applicant's residence.
The regional offices are in New York, Houston, Washington, Boston, Chicago, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Stamford, Conn.
Marlene Schwartz, chief of the Passport Service's field coordination staff, said that the rules on mail delivery and use of the nearest office were being enforced because of logjams in New York, Washington and Houston.
A New Yorker now based in Washington, Ms. Schwartz did not deny that many requests for rush treatment are ersatz and that New Yorkers are known for waiting until the last minute.
Nationally the passport rush is in March, April and May; in New York, the peak is May and June. Everywhere, the buildup begins in February.
New York, Washington and Houston have many corporate headquarters, which often put through the paperwork for their executives' passports locally regardless of where the executives live.
Eugene E. Briggs, the manager of the New York passport region, said that his office got applications from people in all 48 contiguous states.
Ms. Schwartz said that spreading the load to regional offices would help keep things moving because local staffs were familiar with their region's birth certificates and with the documents that might be submitted when official records were lost.
Applications for passports or renewals are available at many federal and state courts and some post offices in addition to the 13 passport offices.
It is possible to mail in a renewal application if your last passport was issued within 12 years and you were at least 16 years old when it was issued.
An adult passport costs $35 by mail. A new adult passport costs $42, which is also the cost of a renewal if the expired one is more than 12 years old and it requires a personal appearance at the agency, court or post office. A new passport for someone under 18 costs $27 and lasts five years.
Early renewal is smart for anyone who might travel this year.
Many countries will not grant a visa unless the traveler's passport is valid for six months after arrival. Some require a longer period: Israel stipulates the passport be valid for nine months after arrival; for Madagascar, the period is one year.
The reinforcement of passport rules has distressed services that obtain passports and visas for others in places like Washington and New York.
These services are frequently used by midsize companies to get their employees' passports and visas. Private travelers who need many visas also use the services. The usual charge is $25 plus any fees that might be required.
Jan Dvorak, head of one Washington service, Travisa, said that the rules limiting pickup in person were not yet being tightly enforced in the Washington office.
Demand was slow, he said, and the passport office was still processing applications in five days, so that the visa services working for clients leaving in 10 days still had time to pick up passports and get most visas.
"But in the spring we will have problems," Mr. Dvorak said. "Say the travel is 12 days off, and under the rules the passport is to be mailed. We won't know whose desk it is on, or how to find it, if it does not come to us in time. We are fighting to not have the passport delivered by mail."
Asked if most travelers could not arrange to have a valid passport in hand before the last minute, Dvorak said that people could forget when their documents expired, that names change - this requires a new passport - and that passports are often stolen or lost.
Dvorak, who heads a trade association of 17 of the 24 visa services in Washington, said the visa that took the most time was for the Soviet Union.
"But they are learning quickly how to be capitalized," he said. "If you want the visa in seven days, it costs $15. If you want it quicker, the fee is $25."
Other countries of Eastern Europe, he said, are now the easiest to deal with. Many African countries take a long time to issue visas, he said, and so does Saudi Arabia.
In January 1988, a requirement was added to passport applications. Because of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, it became mandatory to supply a Social Security number.
The Internal Revenue Service wants to trace U.S. citizens who have moved overseas and stopped filing an income tax return or have never filed. The penalty for failure to supply this information is $500.
The IRS is only beginning to analyze the computer tapes being supplied by the State Department, according to Wilson Fadely, a spokesman, and it cannot tell how well it is doing at catching up with tax evaders.
Fadely said that so far no fines had been imposed for failure to supply a Social Security number.
In July 1989, the agency put together a study of 615 applications for passport renewal received from United States embassies and consulates. These applications probably represented people living overseas. The age range was 22 to 65.
Of these, Fadely said, 60.8 percent supplied all the required data; 18.4 percent said they were not required to supply Social Security numbers; 16.1 percent left the line blank; 4.7 percent gave a wrong number.
He said that the information would be matched to see if those who submitted the number filed taxes.
"One thing we did find out," Fadely said, "is that for the `stop-filers,' the people who once filed tax returns and then stopped, our addresses were correct only in 30 percent of the cases. This improves our ability to catch stop-filers."
Somewhere among the American population living overseas are some of the big fish the tax people hope to find; whether avoiding a fine of $500 will force them, in effect, to turn themselves in by providing their Social Security numbers is another question.
For people who do not want their Social Security numbers on their passports, or who dislike having their movements in and out of the country tracked on a computer tape that can be matched to tax returns, the price, in effect, is $500.
Collectible at some later date, apparently.