Can You Get a US Passport if You Owe Back Taxes?

Person processing a stack of new US Passports
Passport Rules Relaxed In Advance Of Summer Travel Season. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Under current federal law, if you owe the IRS a “seriously delinquent” tax debt you will not be able to get or renew a U.S. passport unless you meet certain conditions. Once the U.S. State Department receives “certification” of such tax debt from the IRS, it will not issue a new passport or renew an existing passport. In addition, under IRS 7345, the State Department can restrict the use of a passport or revoke it entirely. 

As of 2019, the law defines a “seriously delinquent” tax debt as at least $52,000 including interest and penalties. The amount must be adjusted annually for inflation and the IRS can only notify the State Department of your tax debt if: 

However, you may still be able to get a passport if one or more of the following circumstances apply to you: 

  • You have negotiated an IRS installment payment agreement and are making payments as required.
  • You have settled your debt with the IRS via an offer in compromise, or a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.
  • The IRS has notified you of a levy or lien, but you have requested a Collection Due Process hearing.
  • You have requested “Innocent Spouse Relief” and the IRS has suspended the collection levy against you. 

These regulations on passports and taxes are part of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, enacted in 2015 to provide dependable, long-term funding for surface transportation infrastructure planning and investment.

Billions Uncollected From Scofflaws

How many billions of dollars go uncollected from those trying to get a passport?

According to the Government Accountability Office, the independent investigative arm of Congress, about 224,000 of the 16 million people who sought to get a passport in 2008 owed at least $5.8 billion in federal taxes. And the IRS could do nothing about it.

If that's doesn't meet the definition of fecklessness, we don't know what does.

"IRS enforcement of federal tax laws is vital - not only to identify tax offenders - but also to promote broader compliance by giving taxpayers confidence that others are paying their fair share," the GAO wrote in April 2011.

"As federal deficits continue to mount, the federal government has a vital interest in efficiently and effectively collecting the billions of dollars of taxes owed under current law."

Clearly, the taxes not paid by these passport seekers contribute to the nation’s $350 billion a year “tax gap,” the difference between the annual amount of taxes owed and the amount voluntarily paid on time. The tax gap results in higher taxes for all Americans increase the national federal deficit and reduces the level and quality of service the federal government can offer.

Examples of Tax Cheats Getting a Passport

The GAO study found numerous egregious examples of tax cheats who successfully applied to get a passport in 2008. They included a gambler who owed $46.6 million in back taxes, a World Bank employee who owed $300,000 to the IRS, and a State Department contractor who neglected to pay $100,000 to the government.

The GAO's investigation of 25 specific passport applications found 10 people who had been indicted or convicted of federal laws.

"Some of these individuals accumulated substantial wealth and assets, including million-dollar houses and luxury vehicles, while failing to pay their federal taxes," the report found.

Should Tax Cheats Get a Passport?

There's an easy solution to the problem, according to the GAO: Pass legislation allowing the IRS and State Department to work together to identify tax cheats and deny them their right to get a passport.

"If Congress is interested in pursuing a policy of linking federal tax debt collection to passport issuance, it may consider taking steps to enable State to screen and prevent individuals who owe federal taxes from receiving passports," the GAO concluded.

Screening those trying to get a passport for tax cheats shouldn't be too difficult. The federal government already restricts the issuance of passport to people who, for example, owe more than $2,500 in back child support payments.

"Such legislation could have the potential to help generate substantial collections of known unpaid federal taxes and increase tax compliance for tens of millions of Americans holding passports," the GAO report recommended.

Updated by Robert Longley