Your Passport: Don't Leave Home Without It
Don't Forget Your Passport
Why you need one?now, more than ever?and how to protect it from harm.
At first glance, a U.S. passport is just a little booklet, about the size of a pocket notebook, a slim binding of heavy, baby-blue paper. But with this tiny document, you can visit almost any nation on Earth, earning approving nods from customs officials and collecting exotic stamps, one border post at a time. With a few notable exceptions?such as Cuba and North Korea?a U.S. passport is respected in almost every harbor and airport on the globe.
And recently, with the tightening of Homeland Security, your passport isn't just a ticket to places?it's your ticket back. If you're finally taking that romantic trip to Europe or you've bought tickets for an Asian adventure, your passport is mandatory for travel to most foreign countries. And beginning on Jan. 23, 2007, the document will become even more essential for zipping around North America. The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative will require that anyone who takes a flight to Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean must have a passport or other approved identity card.
Such a powerful document needs protection?these days especially. Identity theft is a constant danger, and the last thing anyone wants is his or her name attached to gun-running or international fraud. More important, your passport is the most effective proof that you are, in fact, you. A passport makes life very easy, but a stolen passport can make life very, very hard. If you've never had a passport before, here are some tips on how to obtain one, how to carry it, and what to do if?heaven forbid?someone nabs it while you're leaning over a table of souvenirs.
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How to get a passport
If you've never applied for a passport, the process can be intimidating?after all, it's not often you're dealing with the U.S. Department of State. Really, though, it's pretty straightforward: First, you have to get an official passport photo of yourself. This can be done in lots of places: Camera stores, pharmacy chains, FedEx Kinko's outlets?any company outfitted to develop film is usually authorized to take a passport photo. Next, you have to track down a copy of your birth certificate, fill out your passport application (inelegantly called the DS-11), and turn in your materials along with the $97 fee at the nearest passport facility (http://iafdb.travel.state.gov). Do this as soon as you can?it can take several weeks, sometimes longer, to receive your passport. You can request expedited service, but faster delivery costs an extra $60.
Getting a passport may seem like an annoying process, but there are no tests to pass, and adult passports are valid for 10 years?which means a full decade of carefree travel by air, sea and rental car.
Our neighbors to the north and south
Back in the old days (about six years ago), you could drive across the Canadian border with a smile and a driver's license. All you had to do was say, "I'm just on vacation," and "No firearms in the back, sir." In recent years, border guards have gotten a little nosier?sometimes even nasty?when travelers don't have a passport.
Well, it's about to get tougher: Starting on Jan. 8, 2007, it's imperative that you bring your passport on an airplane when traveling to Canada and Mexico. And starting as early as 2008 (the exact deadline depends on how quickly the departments of State and Homeland Security can meet requirements), you'll need a passport to cross any international border by land or sea.
Even now, make sure you have your ID out as you pull up to the border checkpoint. Once you reach that booth, your car is idling on foreign territory, and not having an ID can mean inspection, detention, hours of waiting and unpleasant questions. And when you come back to the U.S., it's the same story: You'll need a passport to re-enter the United States, even if you're a U.S. citizen. Notable exceptions to this rule are Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands; you'll need a valid I.D. to visit those countries, but a U.S. passport isn't required.
Applying for a visa
This is not the name of a credit card, but rather a special document in your passport that is required to visit some foreign countries. Most visas are multi-colored stickers pasted into one of the pages of your passport. Many nations don't require a visa, unless you plan to work there (which is a far more involved process). Most countries don't require U.S. travelers to obtain a visa (Japan, Canada, any member of the European Union), while other countries will not let you take one step into the airport without one (India, Brazil, Algeria). Still others may require additional documentation to clear customs (such as an International Certificate of Vaccination, or proof that you've purchased a return ticket). Places like Burundi can be very difficult to enter?you need three application forms, three photos, proof of a hotel reservation, and an official invitation. (Take that, non-Burundians.)
To obtain a visa for, say, India, look up the address of the nearest Indian consulate and give them a call. You can usually get a visa processed by mail, but if you're worried about sending your passport through the postal service, you may even apply in person at the embassy. Remember to carefully read the terms of your visa: A tourist visa doesn't entitle you to do any kind of paid labor, and each visa is valid for only a specific amount of time (in Burma it's 28 days, in Cambodia it's three months). Also check the expiration date on your passport?many nations won't accept you if your passport is due to expire within six months.
When bad things happen to good tourists
Travelers have found dozens of different ways to safely stow their documents, but a common theme emerges when it comes to passports: They keep them close to their bodies. Fanny packs are common in Europe, though they may seem too dorky for Americans. There's also a variety of pouches that either hang from your neck or fasten around your ankle, fully hidden beneath your shirt or pant leg. Muggers usually don't have time to go rifling through your clothing, and most of them are after loose cash, not international documents. Budget travelers with wider feet may even stick their passports in their shoes (though this usually causes some nose crinkling at border crossings, and may even damage the passport's cover). Whatever you do, keep your passport on your person. Don't carry it in a purse, backpack or messenger bag. You must always be wary of thieves?or plain forgetfulness.
One savvy idea is to make a photocopy of your passport, fold up the paper, and carry it in your wallet or store it in your luggage. If your passport is stolen or lost, you can use this copy to defend your identity at a U.S. Embassy. Photocopies are usually grainy and washed-out, but they get the job done?a good Xerox will look enough like you to deflect suspicion?as long as you have another form of identification, like a driver's license or a state ID. For the computer literate, you might also scan your passport digitally, creating a PDF accessible by e-mail, but be careful where you store the file. A missing passport is an extremely serious handicap, but a well-made copy will help safeguard your return.
Crime happens?even in famously safe places, like Japan and Norway?and like every case of bad luck, it's best to be prepared. Make sure you have the address and phone number of the local American Embassy. After all, it's their job to represent you in a foreign nation, and even if your passport is misplaced or stolen, they will work hard to verify your identity and find a way to get you home. And don't waste any time?stealing a passport is a serious crime and a potential window for identity thieves. File a report with the embassy staff and ask their advice. No one enjoys an international incident, and assuming you've behaved yourself on vacation, you'll eventually be able to make it home safely.
Robert Isenberg is a writer and actor. While he has traveled extensively in Europe, Asia and Africa, he always loves coming home to Pittsburgh.