I’ll skip right to the punchline: Check the expiration date on your passport. If you have six months or less remaining, renew it now. Really. Now.
Why do I feel compelled to give you advice you didn’t ask for? Because I want to spare you the nightmare I went through recently.
I’m not an inexperienced traveler. But five days shy of a long-planned trip to Croatia, I discovered that I was a blithely ignorant one, unaware of a recent change in U.S. passport rules that can render a seemingly valid passport annoyingly — and trip-defyingly — invalid.
Preparing Myself and My Passport for the Trip of a Lifetime
Back in January, my husband and I decided the time had come to realize our dream of sailing the scenic Dalmatian coast of Croatia. We researched our options online. Came up with a cruise that made us both salivate. Put down the not insubstantial fee. Purchased the pricey plane tickets. Checked our passports.
Here's a tip: if you find yourself caught in this particular passport nightmare, wear sneakers. Passport Agency lines are l-o-o-o-ng.
Then we kicked back and counted down the months.
Five days before our May 19 departure date, I trotted out my suitcase and a message began to nag at the back of my brain to check my passport. I ignored it and focused on packing. That night, though, the message grew so insistent that I got out my passport. The expiration date read 23 AUG 2017.
Given that my travel dates were May 19-29, I should have felt reassured. But for reasons unknown (probably something I’d read or heard on the radio without quite taking it in), my brain continued to flash a red alert. So, I logged on to the Internet and found this under “Quick Facts” on the Croatia page of the U.S. Department of State’s U.S. Passports & International Travel page — “Passport Validity: Three months past your planned date of departure.” For more information, I was offered the phone number of the U.S. Embassy — in Zagreb.
Panicked Actions Ensue
In a panic, I shared the information with my husband, who quickly scoured our travel documents and discovered that the State Department posting was inaccurate. According to the fine print buried in our cruise information, the expiration date on our passports had to extend six months (not three) beyond our return (not departure) date.
Suddenly, we were facing the prospect of being turned back at the airport security line. We also faced the prospect of losing every cent of the money we’d paid for the cruise and our plane tickets. Though we’d prudently purchased travel insurance, a frantic scouring of the reimbursement rules indicated that there was no allowance for a screw-up of this particular order.
In doing a little online research, search results displayed private services that, for $399 (plus a State Department fee of $170 for an expedited passport), promised to procure a new passport within days. But how could I be certain that these services were legitimate? For all I knew, I might be overnighting my valid passport into oblivion. The customer reviews ranged from ecstatic to scathing.
Eventually, I found a list of the State Department’s 27 regional passport agencies. Information on the site of the office closest to my home offered this: “If you are traveling internationally in less than 2 weeks or need to obtain a foreign visa within 4 weeks, you are eligible to schedule an appointment at this passport agency with proof of international travel.”
In addition to the usual paperwork required for a standard renewal (a DS-82 form, two new passport photos and a valid passport) the expedited application also required proof of travel plans. On the State Department’s website, I downloaded the DS-82 form, and I printed a copy of my airline ticket itinerary to document my plans.
Stepping Back From the Ledge and Into the Line
At 7:58 a.m. the next morning, I began dialing the New York Passport Agency office, determined to be first in the queue. At precisely 8 a.m., I got a human being on the line who cheerfully told me that the first available appointment was for May 24 — five days after my scheduled departure date. “Oh, no!” I gasped.
The guy talked me off the cliff. (I’d read online that the Passport Agency folks are really friendly, and it was true. They don’t go all DMV on you). Calmly, he suggested that I come to the office today and stand in the line for people with no appointment. He warned that it would likely take many hours. But, he assured, getting a viable passport in time for my trip was doable.
Online, I’d learned that UPS stores do passport photos. I was outside the door of my local UPS store the moment it opened. Snap! “Like it?” the man asked, flashing the camera at me. I didn’t even bother to put on my glasses. “It’s great,” I said. (Certainly, it couldn’t be worse than my last one, which made me look like a strung-out meth addict.) Then I raced to the bus stop just in time to make the 9 a.m. bus to Manhattan.
Here’s a tip: if you find yourself caught in this particular nightmare, wear sneakers. Passport Agency lines are l-o-o-o-ng. After I spent an hour clearing the ground floor entry line, I was directed to another floor, where I waited more than three hours for my number to be called. During those hours, I chatted up the staff and learned that depending on where you’re headed, your passport expiration date may need to extend anywhere from three to six months beyond your travel return date. “It’s a new thing,” a Passport Support Associate named Gilbert told me.
At the final window, I paid $170 for the expedited passport ($60 more than the usual renewal fee). The guy behind this window smiled sympathetically and told me, “A lot of the people are here for the same reason you are.” Then he delivered a final bit of bad news: Because I wasn’t leaving the country within the next 24 hours, my new passport would not be ready until the next day.
Grrr. I returned to Gilbert, who said that if I’d come the day before my departure date, I could have left with a passport in hand — provided I’d snaked through all the required lines. We agreed that seemed risky. At 3 p.m., the line for new applications closes. What if I hadn’t made it to the front of the queue by that witching hour?
A Little Charm Can Go a Long Way
As I left the Passport Agency, I chatted up Reggie, the worker at the door, flashing my best smile. Good move. He said that if I checked in with him the next morning, he’d let me go straight to the floor where my new passport would be waiting, thus averting the morning line (which begins to queue outside the agency as early at 6:45 am).
The next day, I returned to the city and greeted Reggie right at opening time, only to discover that the office was closed for a “shelter-in-place drill.” I stood. Then I stood some more. Eventually, I left with my new passport in hand, and, hey, it turned out the picture wasn’t totally terrible.
The tranquil turquoise waters of the Adriatic soon rendered this nightmare a distant memory. But it’s a lesson I won’t forget.
I know you didn’t ask for this advice, but truly, play it safe. If you have six months or less remaining on your passport, renew it now. Really.
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