Planning to travel abroad? Don’t procrastinate in applying for a passport.

The six-week process of getting a passport has exploded to about 12 weeks or longer, said Mercer County Prothonotary Liz Fair.

“We’re not even peaked out yet,” she said, seeing no end in sight to the federal delays in the passport process.

There is no rhyme or reason to how fast any given application will take once it reaches a federal intake center in Philadelphia, she said. A colleague of hers described the boxes and boxes of applications stacking up there, and the crammed-full hoppers can add randomness to when applications are processed.

The glut of applications is due to regulations imposed in January governing American travelers, she said.

Passports are now required for air travel from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. Last month those rules were relaxed. Now Americans returning from those countries only need a receipt showing they applied for a passport.

Other countries can be a challenge. Mrs. Fair said one woman was trying to get to Germany, where her fiance is stationed, in time for their wedding. She had to call a colleague on the federal level to help get the passport application pushed through.

The extended wait-time creates other problems since a person’s information stays in federal hands until the application process ends. Mrs. Fair suggested duplicates of birth certificates be made before they are sent out with the passport application.

There are a couple of ways to try and speed up the process, but no guarantees.

Mrs. Fair said several people have driven to Philadelphia or federal centers to wait in line. She said some people report massive lines, but there are stories of people getting their passports by the next day.

You can also pay $60 plus overnight delivery fees for expedited service from the State Department. “The process can generally be completed in about two to three weeks,” said Ann Barrett, deputy assistant secretary of state for passport services.

Passports normally cost $97 for fees and processing for those 16 or older, and $82 for fees and processing for anybody younger than 16.

Maura Harty, assistant secretary of consular affairs, said that “we regularly provide passports in one day or, in some cases, the same day, for travelers with urgent needs,” including “life-and-death emergencies.”

For leisure travel, Jessica Labaire of TNT Vacations in Boston said the expedited service “often works, but in many cases, it has not worked. It’s been completely sporadic.” Many TNT customers canceled trips this year when passports did not arrive in time. “We estimate a 10 to 20 percent loss in business because of this,” she said.

Making an appointment over the phone can make the expedited service work a little smoother, depending on the situation, said Barrett. And some travelers have reported long waits on the phone.

Other Americans have tried writing to their congressmen or paying to use a private expediter.

The private companies are allotted a certain number of appointments a day, and while demand for services increases among expediters, the number of applications they may submit is decreasing, said Robert Smith, director of the National Association of Passport and Visa Services.

The State Department expects nearly 18 million passport applications this year, up from 12.1 million last year. The agency hired extra staff and ordered diplomats home with a goal of “reducing passport turnaround time to normal levels by the end of the year,” said Harty.

“The passport situation is a top priority at the State Department, and we are devoting resources and personnel to getting back on track,” she said.

Mrs. Fair said the problem is likely to continue. The new laws, which will be in full effect by January, require more passports to be processed. Children are always entering the system with a need for passports, and so the new law is going to create a permanently increased demand, she said.

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