How to Take a Great Passport Photo

by marcie on January 16, 2012

The late, great American humorist Erma Bombeck nailed it with the title of one of her books: “When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It’s Time to Go Home.”

passport mug 150x150 How to Take a Great Passport Photo

Maybe this will look better to me in 5 years when it expires.

In my case, my photo looked terrible from the get go. I prayed I never looked that bad while traveling, and that I wasn’t pulled aside for interrogation by the TSA.

I thought it would be a good idea to go to a “professional” photo studio for the shot, as it would adorn my passport for the next 10 years.

As I lined up on the stool in front of a white backdrop (wearing a light purple shirt) the girl said new regulations said you weren’t supposed to smile. OK, so they wanted everyone to look suspicious? (In the newspaper business they call this format a mug shot.)

The resulting photo was washed out and terrible, but I had paid too much for it and was too wimpy to insist on a retake for free. I shoved it in a drawer until my current passport neared expiration, then finally included it with my renewal. Now I have to regret that for the next five years.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  In preparing for your trip to Ireland, here are few tips for taking a passport photo you will be proud to show at any security checkpoint.

1. Visit the State Department travel site’s photo requirements (  to see the official parameters for a passport photo. They now offer a tool for sizing your own digital photographs so you don’t have to use a paid photographer. Take as many photos as you like and keep only the one you want! I like that.

2. Get your hair done. That may sound like old lady advice, but having a good haircut will make you look good for years to come. Consider a cut (and color) that won’t look terribly dated before your passport expires. Beehives looked awesome in 1963; by 1973, not so much.

3.  Decide what time of day you look your best. If you’re a morning person you might look great at 8 a.m., bright-eyed and ready to take on the world. If you’ve stayed up until 4 a.m., consider taking your photo at 4 p.m., when the bags and shadows have diminished.  (They don’t like to you significantly “alter” your photos.)

4. Wear makeup, even if you normally go bare. Just a little mascara, light blush and light colored lip gloss will make your features stand out and your photo “pop.”  DO NOT overdo it, or you will regret it. Do you really want to look like Amy Winehouse for the next 10 years?

 5. Wear a simple, timeless top in a color that complements your hair and skin tone.  Not much of your top will show, but still, you don’t want it to detract from your face or make you look dated before your passport expires.

 6. Look friendly. The rules do state to keep a “neutral expression,” but this doesn’t mean you have to look petrified. Practice the model’s trick of smiling with your eyes — open and friendly, but not squinchy. You want your look to say “trust me, I’m not a terrorist.”

7. And like your mother always told you, sit up straight!

For more information on passport requirements and to apply, visit the State Department’s passport website at www.

Do you have a passport photo horror story you’d like to share? Or better yet, a bad passport photo? We’d love to see them!  And if you find these tips useful please feel free to share them on your social network of choice by clicking the buttons below.


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