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Why a Passport Photo Gets Rejected: 9 Mistakes to Avoid

A passport photo is rejected when it fails to meet the official requirements concerning size, background color, attire, facial expression and more.

Failure to follow the guidelines for a valid passport photo is one of the main reasons passport application processing is delayed. The good news is, these errors can be avoided with some careful attention to detail.

Following are some common mistakes that can lead to the rejection of your passport photo:

Errors that can cause a passport photo to be rejected

While most of these errors tend to pop up when applicants attempt to take and print their own passport photos, even professional passport photos sometimes get rejected. It is up to you, the applicant, to be sure the picture you attach to your passport application will pass muster with the US Department of State.

These 9 tips will help ensure your passport photo isn’t the downfall of your passport application.

Get the photo dimensions right

passport face size template

The US Department of state is very clear about exactly where and what size the face should be in a passport photo:

  • The height of the face should be between 1 and 1 3/8 inches.
  • The nose should be centered horizontally in the picture.
  • The eyes should be between 1 1/8 and 1 3/8 inches from the bottom edge of the picture.

Free web tools like the passport photo wizard can help make sure you get the positioning of the face exactly where it should be.

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Keep a neutral facial expression

Passport photos require subjects to look directly into the lens with a neutral expression. Want to smile in your passport pic? As long as it is natural and not exaggerated, it should be accepted.

Be sure to keep your lips gently pressed together (not a deliberate frown or smile), eyes open naturally, and head level with the camera.

Tilting your head forward or backward, looking down, showing teeth, or making an emotive expression (such as an overly excited face) will result in a photo that you cannot use for your passport. If you smirk, blink, frown, or wink, take another shot!

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Look out for shadows in your passport photo

Professional photographers use lighting rigs and flash to eliminate unwanted shadows. If taking your own passport photos, you probably don’t have the same kind of equipment. Still, that is no excuse when selecting a photo to use for your passport. A shadow - either on or behind the subject – is grounds for an immediate application rejection.

lighting for passport photoIf going the DIY route with your passport photography, consider lighting both in front and behind of the subject with lights of equal wattage to prevent background shadows. It is also helpful to have lighting from both the right- and left-hand sides to help eliminate shadows from appearing on either side of the face.


The best way to test your lighting setup is to take a trial photo. If the resulting image is too dark or too bright, adjust the position or intensity of the light sources accordingly until you are able to produce a uniformly lit image without any shadows.

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Take your glasses off

no glasses in passport photoIf you applied for a passport several years ago, you may very well be wearing eyeglasses in the photo on your current passport. However, the US Department of State changed the policy on bespectacled passport photos. These days, if you wear glasses in your passport photo, it will be rejected.

The reason for the change was primarily to cut down on the number of passport applications that are denied each year solely due to unacceptable photos. Glasses have a tendency to create imperfections like shadows, glare, or tinting effects that make it challenging to see the face (and particularly the eyes) of the applicant clearly. As discussed, if a face is obscured or the quality of the photo is hindered in any way, the photo isn’t accepted.

While you can submit a letter form your doctor declaring you have a medical reason to wear glasses in your passport photo, this is reserved for exceptional circumstances. If you can take your glasses off without causing physical harm, do it – it’s not worth the risk of a rejection!

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Avoid wearing prohibited clothing and accessories

Glasses aren’t the only accessory that can ruin your passport photo. Avoid wearing hats, large jewelry, headphones, or anything else that can obscure your face and/or hairline. These are surefire ways to get your application denied.

However, there are exceptions to this rule. Here is a list of things that can be included:

    Permanent tattoos are acceptable.
  • Jewelry, such as piercings, are allowed, as long as they do not cast shadows or otherwise conceal your face. That means if you choose to wear jewelry, opt for smaller options (like studs or thin necklaces).
  • Head coverings worn for religious purposes are acceptable if accompanied by a signed statement indicating that it is both religious attire and something you consistently wear while in public.
  • Headgear worn for medical purposes is acceptable if it is accompanied by a signed doctor’s statement indicating that the head covering is continuously worn for a health-related reason.

In the cases of items worn on your head, the passport photo must be lit as to prevent the head covering from casting any shadows on your face. For this reason, it is advisable to have your passport photos taken by a professional if you will be wearing a head covering in your passport photo.

There are also limitations on the clothing that you can wear in a passport photo. You cannot be wearing a uniform (or anything resembling a uniform) in your picture. This includes anything with a camouflage print.

When selecting an outfit, stick to something simple. Avoid high collars or reflective embellishments that could create lighting and/or shadow issues in the final product.

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Color quality matters

Your passport photo must be a full-color photograph. Black and white, dull, washed out, or overexposed images are unacceptable. As such, it is crucial to verify that the image of you in your passport photo looks like you do in natural light. If you notice coloration issues, the passport agency will as well – take another picture.

This is especially important if you are opting to take a passport photo on your own. Just as lighting can create issues with shadows, it can also result in pictures that are either too dark or too bright. As mentioned before, the best way to evaluate your DIY photo lighting setup is to take some test pictures and adjust accordingly.

Once you get an image that looks good on your screen, how you choose to print that image could still cause problems. While many modern household printers are capable of printing high-quality photographs, variables like ink levels, ink type, printing resolution, and paper quality can all create quality issues that will result in an unusable photo.

If you take your own passport photo, it is usually well worth the small investment to have the photo printed at a retail photo processing counter or kiosk rather than attempting to print from home. Here are some of the most common locations to get a passport photo taken and/or printed.

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Select an appropriate background

Even if everything about you is perfect in your passport photo, you can still have your application rejected based upon what’s behind you. The only acceptable background is one that is a solid color (white or off white) and contains no shadows, textures, or blemishes.

Professional passport photographers should know this and will typically have backgrounds and lighting conducive to meeting these requirements. That said, when opting to take your own passport photo, be sure to inspect the background as attentively as you do your own image. There should be no items, distracting colors, patterns, or shadows behind you.

One particular challenge with this requirement is children. Children must be photographed on their own and cannot be held by a parent in the photo. If these rules are not adhered to, your photo will not be accepted.

For smaller children, consider having them lay on a plain white sheet and taking the picture from above. Remember: all of the same rules that apply to an adult’s passport photo apply to a child’s passport photo.

Be sure to check for open eyes, proper positioning, balanced coloration, the absence of shadows, and unobscured faces (no pacifiers!).

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Don’t edit your passport photo

While digital photography makes it easy to touch up a picture, any post-processing or retouching will render your passport photo unusable. The US Department of State is very clear that there can be no digital alterations made to a passport photo.

This includes common filters like red-eye reduction, blemish removal, and color enhancement. If you are unhappy with your photo, take a new one rather than editing the one you have.

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Ensure you have the correct passport photo size

Beyond the compositional requirements, a passport photo has its own set of physical requirements as well. The photo itself must be:

  • 2 inches by 2 inches (51mm by 51mm) in size
  • printed on photo quality paper (either matte or glossy)
  • free from damage (creases, smudges, tears, holes, etc.)
  • stapled in the exact locations indicated on the DS-82 application for

Note that while editing a passport photo is not allowed, you can crop a picture so that it meets the dimension requirements.

If you follow all of this advice, you should wind up with a perfectly acceptable passport photo. You may not love it (you're not alone; most people have negative options about their passport photos!), but it will be sure your application doesn't get held up because of a photo issue.

Again, whether you take your own photo or have it done professionally, you are ultimately responsible for what you choose to attach to your application. If you have any doubts, reread the tips above, visit our passport photo page or check out our passport photo FAQ.

Double and triple check so that you do not join the many passport applicants each year whose process is delayed because of a passport photo blunder!

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About the Author: For over 20 years, the U.S. Passport Service Guide team has helped hundreds of thousands of travelers with their travel document questions and shared advice about how to make traveling abroad simpler, safer, and more enjoyable.

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