Making Sure Your Passport Photo Meets Federal Requirements

Traveling anywhere outside the United States requires a valid passport.  That wasn’t always the case.  When I was younger, we thought nothing of crossing the border into Mexico for shopping or social events.  We once attended a wedding in Nogales, returning to Arizona by taxi, and the only ID required at the border was a driver’s license.  Those days are long gone.  Border crossings are heavily scrutinized, and you will need a passport to get back into the United States.  You also need a passport to travel to Canada.

Requirements for Passport Photos.

When you apply for a new, replacement or renewal passport, a valid photo is required.  That photo must meet strict government criteria.  Professional photographers who take passport photos are usually well aware of the requirements, but many people prefer to take their own photos, and without the correct information, they can easily screw it up.

First, passport photos must be the correct size – 2 inches by 2 inches.  The head must occupy the middle of the photo, and the subject must be directly facing the camera.  A good rule of thumb is to position the nose dead center in the picture.  The head must also be the correct size.  It must be between 1 and 1 3/8 inches from the bottom of the chin to the top of the head. The photo must be a clear shot, without shadows or glaring.

Next, the photo must be in color and printed on photo paper.  It can be either matte or glossy photo paper. The background must be either white or off-white.  There are also requirements for the number of pixels in the photo.[1]  The minimum number is 600 x 600; the maximum is 1200 x 1200.  To get a 600 x 600 digital image in a 2 x2 inch photo, you must have a resolution of 300 ppi.[2]

Dos and Don’ts for Passport Photos.

There are many specific prohibitions affecting your attire and the content of your photo.

  • The photo must have been taken in the past 6 months.  You cannot dust off an old photo because it makes you look good.
  • A neutral expression is recommended.  A soft natural smile may pass muster, but a wide grin may get your photo rejected.
  • Your eyes must be open and visible.  You cannot wear glasses.  Before November 1, 2016, glasses were permitted.  If you have a passport issued before that date, and you are wearing glasses in the photo, you may continue to use that passport photo until the passport expires.
  • You cannot wear hats, headphones or any type of head covering. 
    • However, if your religion requires that your head be covered, you may wear that head covering, provided that your entire face is clearly visible with no shadows.  You will need to submit a signed statement verifying that the head covering is a requirement of a recognized, traditional religion.
    • If you must wear something on your head for medical reasons, a signed doctor’s statement is required.  (An example would be someone with a halo brace screwed into the skull to support the neck).
  • You may not wear any type of uniform or camouflage clothing.
  • No headphones or Bluetooth devices are allowed in the photo.
  • No digital enhancement is allowed except you may remove red eye from the photo.

Children’s Photos.

It is expected that children will grow and change in appearance.  That does not require a new passport photo every few years.  If your child is under the age of 16 and has changed due to normal growth and aging, you do not need to apply for a new passport. 

When photographing children for a passport, each child is required to have a separate photo.  If you plan to take the photo yourself, use a plain white sheet for a background.  You can lay an infant on the sheet and photograph the child from above.  Make sure there is no glare in the picture or any shadows on the child’s face.  You can also use a car seat to take the photo.  Again, a white sheet makes an appropriate background. The child or infant must be the only thing in the picture.  No pacifiers, toys, stuffed animals, or cute headbands are allowed.  Make sure no furniture or lamps appear in the photo.

The infant or child must be looking directly at the camera, and the child’s eyes must be open.  The authorities are less picky about infants having their eyes open.  They will accept a photo of an infant under one year old with eyes closed.  The digital camera should be positioned approximately 5 feet from the child when the photo is taken.

If Your Appearance Changes, Is a New Photo Required?

If you’ve dyed your hair or let it go gray since your passport photo was taken, there is no need for a new photo.  The same applies for men who have grown a beard or a mustache.  No new photo is required.  However, significant changes in appearance will warrant a new photo.  If you have had major plastic surgery that has altered your appearance, if you have suffered from severe burns or facial trauma, you will need a new passport and photo.

There are other major changes that will necessitate a new photo. Adding or removing numerous/large facial piercings or tattoos is an example.  If you were bare-faced when your picture was taken, but you now have a dragon covering one side of your face and neck, you need a new photo.  Losing or gaining large amounts of weight can also trigger the need to replace your passport photo.  Going from 300 pounds to 135 will completely change the structure and contours of your face.  Features like your eyes and nose will appear larger.  You may look like a completely different person.

Gender transition also requires a new photo.  That one is self-explanatory.   Gender changes will probably require you to apply for new passport with all new identifying information and documentation. 

Services For Passport Photos.

Of course, you can use a professional photographer or passport photo service to get your fully compliant passport photo.  You can also go online to find services that will process the photos you have taken at home and insure they meet all federal requirements.  If you want to print your pictures at home, you may want to consult the government’s passport tool at



[1] The word “pixel” means picture element.  They are the smallest unit of information in a digital image.  Every digital image is comprised of pixels.  They are usually round or square and arranged in a 2-dimensional grid.

[2] PPI stands for pixels per inch.


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