Aiden Ho, 7, and his brother Desmond, 5, would have been on their way to Hong Kong to visit their grandmother if only their mother, Janice Ip, could get their passports processed.
Ip says she’s been searching online for a month for an appointment at Service Canada centres and passport offices but hasn’t found one within a 50-kilometre radius of her home in Aurora, Ont.
“I kind of don’t trust the system at the moment, but what can I do?” she said. “It’s kind of a wait-and-see situation.”
Ip is one of many Canadians weighing the odds of committing to travelling while Service Canada slogs through an overwhelming demand for passports since pandemic restrictions were relaxed, forcing thousands to wait in line at centres across the country.
She says she won’t risk losing her family’s personal documents in the mail to apply for passports — or spend money on plane tickets she might not be able to use.
And taking a day off from work to line up isn’t an option.
“We actually do not have the luxury of waiting in line just because of the nature of our work. We are not able to work from home,” she said.
CBC News asked Families Minister Karina Gould, the minister responsible for passport services, how Canadians should approach passport applications in the upcoming weeks.
Should I mail my passport application?
You’re better off not mailing your passport application for the time being because of the “huge backlog,” Gould said.
“For some people, mail is the only option, and we want to make sure that channel is available to them, but the passport system is really designed as an in-person service,” she said.
Gould added that going in-person allows officers to review personal documents required for passport applications, such as birth certificates and citizen cards, and return them immediately.
Why does the passport program phone line hang up on me?
Canadians have complained about being unable to reach Service Canada phone operators, after waiting for hours, only to hear an automated message that hangs up on them.
“Sometimes your cell phone provider, if you’ve been on hold for a period of time, will drop the call … And that’s not actually because of the government of Canada’s system, because we take all of those calls on,” Gould said.
A spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) says 135 officers currently work at the passport call centre, and an additional 40 officers from 1-800-O-CANADA — the general phone line for information on federal government services — provide support.
Service Canada put in place a system in mid-April that plays a message when the lines are full instead of a busy signal or dropping calls right away. Before then, callers would be disconnected automatically when lines were busy.
The government agency received 949,921 calls between July 4 and July 10.
Gould says Service Canada expects 500 more passport officers to get to work — and 383 citizen service officers who can support them in the passport process — by the end of July.
Will I get my documents in time for a trip this fall?
If you don’t have urgent travel plans, waiting until September to apply for a passport would be the safest bet.
“The goal is that in four to six weeks, we will be through the hump of the backlog,” Gould said.
She hopes that, by then, people who posted their applications will finally receive their passport and that Service Canada can meet its regular service standards.
“We need to do better and, quite frankly, modernize the way applications are made for passports,” she said. “Some of these [measures to digitize the service] are going to take a couple of weeks and a couple of months to do because it’s a change in the nature of the process.”
Service Canada has issued 556,796 passports since April 1. It projects it will receive between 3.6 million and 4.3 million applications in the 2022-2023 fiscal year.
My application wasn’t processed in time. How do I get my refund?
You are entitled to free transfer and pick-up services for your passport if Service Canada fails to process your complete application by service standards, which are 20 business days for mailed applications and 10 business days for in-person submissions.
To get a refund of $50 to $150 for express and urgent pick-up fees, you can make a claim against the Crown, Gould said.
“Sometimes, what happens is people have submitted their application, and if it’s still within the processing time, and they request urgent processing, then they do have to pay the expedited fee,” she said. “If it’s day 22 or 24, then they shouldn’t have to pay that.”
Service Canada says it isn’t responsible for financial losses if passports aren’t delivered in time for your trip. It’s urging Canadians not to finalize travel plans until they have their passports.
Passport office or Service Canada Centre: where should I go?
Travellers hoping to leave within a week or so should speak with an officer in person at a passport office, which offers on-site printing services, Gould says.
All other travellers should visit a Service Canada centre, which she says isn’t “passport-specific.”
If your departure date falls within 24 to 48 hours, no appointment is required to see a passport officer, according to the ESDC, but you will need to show proof of travel.
What’s preventing Canada from allowing renewals online?
One of the main challenges to streamlining demands online, Gould says, is that most applications Service Canada receives are for people who never had Canadian passports.
Passport renewals only make up 12 to 15 per cent of applications, she said, but the federal government is looking to develop an online application system for simple renewals.
“We haven’t had this previously so we have to build it out, and we have to make sure that it works,” she said. “But this is very much under active work at this point in time because we want to make the process as seamless as possible for Canadians.”