A passport is a document issued by a government to allow the bearer to “pass” the “port” of entry of another country. It is evidence that the issuing country recognizes and validates the bearer of the passport. And while you may pay a hefty fee to get a passport, it isn’t yours; it belongs to the government.
I issued passports while working as a vice consul. They are valuable documents, kept in safes until issued, and a strict accounting is kept of the serial numbers. An American passport can be sold for thousands of dollars to counterfeiters or people smugglers, and the penalties for selling a passport are justifiably high. Governments work constantly to add security features to frustrate counterfeiters, so a real passport is even more valuable.
You can get a passport in the U.S at post offices–a recent development. The cost for an adult, on a non-rush basis, is about $100. Allow several months for the processing, though it may take only a few weeks. If you think you might travel next year, get started on the passport now. Normal tourist passports remain valid for 10 years.
The reason why I stressed up front that the passport belongs to the government is to make sure that you understand that it can be revoked at any time. You may have heard the line in news reports about recently-accused figures, “His passport was revoked.” That’s the government saying that they don’t want the person travelling far outside the country. Americans can still get into Canada and Mexico without a passport but will have trouble going beyond that.
If your passport is due to expire while you are out of the country, it can be renewed at your embassy. Likewise, if your passport is lost or stolen, you can get a new one at the embassy. But be warned, any loss of a passport raises sensitivities in the embassy. if you lose your passport more than once, don’t be surprised of you become the target of some form of investigation.