Welcome to the first installment of Mockingbird’s “Before You Go” series: information to help you travel well. Do you have any burning travel questions? Submit them here and I’ll answer them in future posts. Today's topic: the all-important passport!
My passport is one of my most prized possessions. It has its very own leather case (in purple, no less). It lives in a fireproof safe when it’s not in use. And when I’m traveling with it, I am constantly aware of its whereabouts, much like a mother with an infant – except the object of my attention can fit in my pocket. When my last passport expired recently, it had only half a blank page left. So for my new passport, I sprang for the “deluxe model” with extra pages. It’s impressive in its heft, though at the moment all those empty pages look a bit forlorn.
But I digress. As an international traveler, you know that your passport is your all-access pass to the world. So how do you make sure that your passport is going to stand you in good stead?
First, know your passport – and more specifically, its expiration date. Once your passport expires, it’s like Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage – poof! It can't take you anywhere. When you book your international flight, get that passport out and check the expiration date. (I suppose the first rule should be knowing where your passport is, but I’m going to pretend that we don’t need to talk about that...because you know where it is at all times, right? Right?) You don’t want to be the person who discovers on the morning of your flight that your passport expired 3 months ago. I recommend that you always keep your passport renewed, even if you don’t have immediate travel plans. That’s one less thing to worry about as you’re planning a trip. Plus, you never know when an opportunity to travel might arise… or, you know, you need to flee the country.
Second, know your destination. Stating the obvious here, different countries have different passport and entry requirements. For example, some countries require that you have one or two completely empty pages in your passport for their entry stamps. Don’t think you can skate by on this – they will turn you away if you don’t have the space in your passport.
There’s another often-overlooked rule that could land you in the customs hot seat. Most countries require that your passport have six months remaining before its expiration date, measured either from the date you arrive or the date you plan to depart. Someone asked me recently what the point of this rule is, and perhaps more importantly, what’s the point of the expiration date if you need six months of validity to use the passport?
Put simply, the point of the rule is that other countries don’t want you to end up stranded in their country without a valid passport. A passport isn’t just for getting into a country – it’s for leaving as well. So if your passport expires while you’re in France, you won’t be able to leave France, even just to go home. And I imagine that’s just a big ol’ headache for your host country.
This is also why the expiration date still has a purpose, even with the 6-month rule. Picture this: You enter France with 6 months and 1 day left on your passport (you wild and crazy thing!). You stay in France for 3 months (the longest you’re allowed to stay without a visa), then travel to the UK, which is one of the only countries that doesn’t have the 6-month rule, and stay there for 3 months. You leave the UK and arrive back in the United States 1 day before your passport expires. You might get a raised eyebrow from the customs folks, but your passport hasn’t expired yet, so in you go. But if instead you tried to go from the UK back into Europe 1 day before your passport’s expiration date – no dice. It’s time to go home.
The takeaway here is that you should check your destination’s requirements early and make sure your passport is up to scratch. The best source for information about country entry requirements is the U.S. Department of State. Go to their fantastic website here and type in your destination. Then click on “Entry, Exit & Visa Requirements” for all the details.
Finally, a word of caution. There are any number of passport service companies out there who claim to help you with passport applications and renewals and emergencies. I think it’s fair to say that you should never use one of these companies. For one thing, you don’t need to. The passport application and renewal process is easy. Expedited processing takes about three weeks (anecdotally, it’s often less than two). And if you find yourself in a real bind (such as discovering on the morning of your flight that your passport has expired), you can make an appointment at your local passport agency to get a new passport in a matter of days. There have also been cases of certain passport companies using or selling their clients’ personal information for, ahem, non-passport purposes. Since your passport application contains your social security number, that information should go straight from you to the Department of State.
For something as important as your passport, I wouldn’t trust anyone else with it.