The primary requirement for receiving a U.S. passport—a valuable form of identification, as well as a crucial document for foreign travel—is being a citizen of the United States. (For more information on how to go from having a green card to receiving U.S. citizenship, see How to Become a U.S. Citizen.) And for information on how to get or renew a passport, see the State Department’s How Do I Apply for a Passport? page.
Even being a U.S. citizen is not, however, enough in some cases. Under a program called “Passport Denial,” authorized by a 1997 amendment to a law called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), any person who owes child support in an amount greater than $2,500 will be denied a U.S. passport until the matter is cleared up. (At one time, the threshold was $5,000, but it was lowered to $2,500 in 2007.)
What’s more, if the person already has a passport, the U.S. government can revoke, restrict, or limit its use. (As a practical matter, however, they are currently unable to do that without having physical access to the person’s passport, such as during a renewal.)
How does the U.S. government find out who owes child support?
The U.S. Passport Agency automatically receives information from a database list kept by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). The information in this database originally comes from county district attorney offices that work on child support enforcement, which reports support amounts owed (“arrearages”) to DHHS through state or local child support agencies.
How can you get (or reclaim) a U.S. passport if you owe child support?
The people at the passport services offices have no information concerning your child support obligations and they have no authority to do anything until DHHS removes your name from its list. Don’t call DHHS, though—you first need to contact your state or local child support agency to make arrangements to pay your child support debt or otherwise reach some satisfactory agreement.
If you owe child support in more than one U.S. state, then it is likely that all of them reported your name to the Passport Denial program. In that case, you will need to negotiate with all of them before you can be cleared to receive a U.S. passport.
To find the relevant agency, see the State Child Support Agency Passport Denial Program Contacts list on the DHHS website.
Once you have paid off the child support debt or come to some satisfactory agreement, the state(s) in question will request that DHHS remove your name from the database list. This typically takes two or three weeks.
Assuming you have already submitted an application to the Passport Agency, and received notification of the intended denial, this office will hang on to your application for up to 90 days. If you can manage to clear up the child support problem within that time, the Passport Agency will process your application and mail the passport to you (ordinarily within two to five working days).
If you are having trouble getting action on your application, contact the office of the National Passport Information Center (NPIC) at 1-800-487-2778; 1-888-874-7793 (TDD/TTY), or make an appointment at a regional passport agency by calling 1-877-487-2778; 1-888-874-7793 (TDD/TTY).