The recent news about the two passengers with stolen passports boarding the missing Malaysian Airlines jet has gotten me thinking about how important it is for international travelers to keep track of their passports — and pay attention to possible problems with these vital documents that could severely impede their journeys.
Years ago, when I was traveling in Austria, I thought my passport had been lost or stolen. I spent an entire day trying to retrace my every step since I had arrived in Vienna — restaurants, movie theater, museums — with no luck, then a couple of more days caught in a bureaucratic nightmare: filing a report with the Vienna police, applying for and receiving a temporary passport from the U.S. consulate there, and, in the interim, trying unsuccessfully without my documentation to cash travelers checks — back when baby boomers like me still carried such means of exchange.
When I finally had my new passport and some cash in my pocket, I went to check out of my small pension (hotel) when the innkeeper, with a flourish, handed me my old passport, exclaiming, “Don’t forget this!” It seems she had taken it from my room without my knowledge for “safekeeping” (no doubt thinking I might otherwise try to skip out without paying my bill). I won’t repeat what I told her in turn.
Ever since, however, I’ve been almost manic about protecting my passport, and that’s a good thing.
So the first — and most obvious — way your passport can cause you serious travel woes is to lose it, have it stolen — or even have it lifted for “safekeeping” by an overzealous innkeeper. Make sure your passport is safely with you at all times, in a place you remember, unless it’s locked away in a hotel safe or you have to give it up aboard a cruise ship or other circumstance with your full knowledge — and a receipt.
Here are five more ways, some of which you may not be aware of, that your passport can give you grief as you travel:
* It’s damaged in some way. Once when I was accompanying a group of (literal) choirboys on a tour of Europe, our bus stopped at the then-East German border en route to Berlin. A stern-faced official boarded the bus and asked (well, demanded) to see each of our passports. All the passports of the preteen-age boys were in order, but the choir organist had kept his bent and battered passport in his back pocket, where, on a sweat-drenched summer day, some of the ink on the document had become blurred. The official kept us waiting for hours while he deliberated what to do, before finally letting us proceed. We were lucky we weren’t turned away entirely — or at least the organist was lucky not to have been left by the side of the road. Moral of story: keep your passport in a place where it won’t get damaged or frayed — and at the very least, keep it out of your back pocket.
* It expires within six months (or even more). You may think you have plenty of time on your passport to fit in that exotic foreign vacation you’ve long been planning, but not so fast: many countries now insist that your passport be valid for six months after your ticketed return date. I almost missed a business trip to Cyprus for that reason, but just squeezed in under the wire. Be sure to check each country’s requirements if your passport is nearing its renewal date.
* Your visa pages are filled. You may have left on that extended trip to Africa or Asia with several blank visa pages left in your passport, but after visiting a number of countries you might find that all the pages have been stamped — in every possible corner. A friend was held up at the Zambia-Zimbabwe border once for this very reason. After being told he couldn’t cross an international border with no place to stamp his passport, he considered bribery (which might have worked, or might have landed him in jail), but eventually his pleas of ignorance — or perhaps his pesky persistence — prevailed, and the immigration official let him pass.
* The visa for the country you’re trying to visit has an incorrect date. While I was with a travel writers’ group touring Vietnam, one of our members — an elderly lady who had protested the Vietnam War back in the 1960s — was denied entrance to the country because the date on her visa was wrong. Why was it wrong? The Vietnamese consulate had written it incorrectly, transposing the month and day. Worse, she was kept in detention overnight until the group leaders finally bailed her out. So it’s a good idea to double-check the dates on your visas — even when the mistakes are their fault, not yours.
* You have a stamp in your passport from a country that another country is hostile to or doesn’t recognize. The most common example of this is an Israeli stamp in your passport, guaranteed to keep you out of any number of Middle Eastern states. (Israel commonly issues visas on separate pieces of paper if you request it.) Know before you go by checking the websites of countries you plan to visit — they’ll usually spell out who their “enemies” are.
Readers, do you know of other ways your passport can cause travel woes? If so, I’d love to hear them.
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