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How to Take a Passport Photo That You Won’t Hate

If renewing a passport is on your to-do list, these pointers will get you closer to the photo of your dreams.

Wihle you may know how to renew your passport, there is a definite art in learning how to take a passport photo that doesn’t resemble your 8th-grade school picture day disaster.

But forget brace-face-era you. With adult passports valid for ten years, it’s understandable you want to snap a great (or at least mediocre) picture. This brings us to the ultimate question: How do I make my passport photo look good? Because yes, taking a great passport photo can feel like a straight-up struggle and, for many, is a source of significant anxiety.

Besides putting your best face forward, there are actual rules a passport photo must abide by. Otherwise, you risk your passport being rejected, which is the number one delay in passport processing, according to the U.S. Department of State.

To save time, money, and your sanity, check out the tips below that reveal how to take a passport photo that isn’t accepted (or awful!). These passport photo tips include what to wear for the perfect outfit, how to pose, what is not allowed in a passport photo, and even why saying “mocha” can result in a perfect smile. Because we don’t want you just to have a mediocre picture–we want to teach you how to take a passport photo that you proudly share with TSA and border control. Now say cheese…er….mocha!

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Related: What to Do if You’ve Lost Your Passport

Take Your Photo Near a Passport Agency

The first question you must ask yourself: Where can I get a passport photo taken? Finding a location that will take a passport photo is usually quite simple. Your local drugstore chain, pharmacy, FedEx, and UPS will offer the passport-taking service. But there is a caveat to choosing one of these options: employees tend to be rushed and less skilled at taking photos. Plus, you usually have only one or two attempts to look your best for the picture.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a passport agency near you, you might have better luck finding a location near the agency that takes better pictures. These locations tend to have better lighting, better camera equipment, and employees more skilled at snapping photos. While they may not be modeling agency quality, these factors add to a passport photo you’ll like better.

Of course, if luck isn’t on your side and you have none of these passport photo services nearby, it’s time to learn how to take a passport photo at home. Taking a (decent) photo at home requires two essentials: a white background in a well-lit area and a friend or family member to take the picture for your passport. Yes, we may be in the era of the duck-face selfie, but save those for Instagram, please!

Regardless of where you take the photo, ensure it fits the country’s requirements for a passport-size photo. Believe it or not, the United States and European   have different size requirements, so read the passport photo guidelines!

Be Mindful of Your Outfit (and Avoid Certain Shirts!)

Once we know where to take our passport photo, the second step is opening our closet and deciding what to wear for the said picture. A strapless top is a passport photo faux pas for obvious reasons, right? Since the passport photo is cropped right at the bustline, it can make you look like you’re not wearing a shirt. And though a TSA agent might not judge you for your style choice, think about your future employer or professional situations. If you ever need to show your passport to a boss or colleagues for onboarding paperwork or travel purposes, the appearance of being topless would not be a good look.

On the other hand, an acceptable passport photo should strike a balance between overexposure and underexposure. It should be in high contrast, with no shadow on the face or in the background. A color photo is required for digital format, and a black and white photograph is recommended for printed forms, but color is also accepted.

Embrace a Bit of Color for the Passport Photo

Fashion aficionados (or folks that want some semblance of normality in their photo) may ask: What is the best color to wear for passport photos? Since you’ll need to be photographed in front of a white or off-white background, wearing one of these colors is a no-no unless you want to look like a floating head.

Instead, for a photo, go full-on and embrace color or opt for a neutral hue that still stands out, like a navy or cobalt blue. It can be helpful to go through your phone’s camera roll to see what colors best complement your skin tone.

Rock a Timeless Style

Sure, TikTok gives us the lowdown on what all the cool kids wear these days. But some fashion trends are just that: trendy. Do you really want to wear an of-the-moment garment for a photo you’ll have for the next decade? Instead, opt for a forever-in-style piece like a turtleneck, collared shirt, or print (like plaid or stripes).

The same can be said for accessories. Take those massive bib necklaces, for instance–they had a significant moment years ago, but now they would look outdated. The best passport photos include simple accessories like a simple stud, tiny hoops, or a thin necklace, all of which can keep a picture from looking timestamped.

Choose Your Hairstyle Wisely

For those with longer or big hair, lessen the chance of your photo being rejected by ensuring your locks aren’t casting shadows or obscuring any part of your face. That can mean pulling your hair up or back, and if you have bangs—that’s fine—just as long as they’re not covering your eyes.

Wear More Makeup Than You Normally Would

If you choose to wear makeup, go one step further than your everyday routine. You don’t have to have a full about-to-star-in-a-play face, but maybe an extra layer of foundation, concealer under the eyes, or color on the lips and cheeks. The camera picks up everything, so even if the makeup looks a bit heavy in person, do not panic–it will look normal in your passport photo. The key is finding the fine line between looking polished and still looking like yourself.

Look Head-on at the Camera

How to pose for a passport photo? Simple. The camera lens should be directly at eye level. Anything higher or lower, and you risk the camera looking up your nose. This is especially helpful if you’re taking your own passport photo but also comes in handy if you’re dealing with a less-than-experienced photo at a local, random drugstore that takes passport photos.

Find the Light

You can’t do much about the lighting at locations where you’re paying someone to take your photo, but choosing the best light is vital if you’re taking your own picture. Go for natural sunlight and stand in front of a window so the light is directly in front of you. Also, stand about an arm’s length distance from the wall or backdrop so there aren’t any shadows. If natural light isn’t an option or it’s a gloomy day, play around with artificial lighting so the photo is well-lit and doesn’t cast shadows on your face or the background. Finding the right light and taking test shots can feel time-consuming, but it’s better than having to reshoot photos that have been rejected.

Master the Natural Smile

The State Department’s website reads travelers should “Have a neutral facial expression with both eyes open and mouth closed.” That wide grin with teeth showing and eyes squinting will most likely be revoked. Instead, think of something low-key pleasant–a person, place, or thing that brings a soft smile to your face.

You can also try saying or mouthing the word “mocha.” Words ending in “uh” create a soft, natural smile. And for those of us who blink often, keep your eyes closed and only open them on the photographer’s count of three. The best passport pictures are the ones that are accepted–and for that, we need your eyes open.

Strike a Pose

Just before you’re about to take a picture, some physical reactions tend to happen. Your body tenses up, and you get that deer in headlights look. However, the perfect pose is pretty easy but might initially feel awkward. Sit or stand with your legs shoulder-width apart (crossing your legs can make you lean to one side more than the other versus being perfectly straight) and keep your shoulders back. Don’t forget to lengthen your neck and extend your chin a bit; this is the part that can feel awkward. But in photos, it gives the appearance of a long neck.

Pack a Small Kit With Essentials

If you’re heading somewhere to get your photo taken, don’t forget to bring along a few items for last-minute touch-ups. This can include a teeth-whitening pen for those coffee sips or an extra shirt just  said coffee spills on you in a moment of nervousness. And whether you wear makeup or not, bring oil-blotting papers, as the camera picks up even the slightest shine. Also, pack a stick of gum. Chew gum for a few seconds to get the saliva flowing and loosen up that formerly dry, stiff smile, especially if you suffer from a dry mouth.

Don’t Use Social Media Filters on Your Passport Photo

Yes, it is 2023, and with a touch of the finger, we can magically transform: clear our skin, widen our eyes, and even give ourselves a little tummy tuck. Filters on social media are rampant, but they should not be used for your passport photo. You cannot even digitally alter your image to eliminate red eye–take another picture instead. Enhancing or modifying your passport photo in any way is a surefire way to get rejected. Instead, use this as a lesson in embracing your natural beauty.