Losing your passport
Last week, on my trip to Berlin, I managed to drop my passport. I don't know where -- it might have been in the bathroom of Brussels airport trying to change clothes in a tiny room after a long red-eye, or it might have been when Brussels Air made me gate check a bag requiring a big rearrangement of items, or somewhere else. But two days later, arriving at a Pension in Berlin I discovered it was missing, and a lot of calling around revealed nobody had turned it in.
In today's document hungry world this can be a major calamity. I actually have a pretty pleasant story to report, though there were indeed lots of hassles. But it turned out I had prepared for this moment in a number of ways, and you may want to do the same.
The upshot was that I applied for a passport on Wednesday, got it on Thursday, flew on Friday and again on Monday and got my permanent passport that same Monday -- remarkable efficiency for a ministry with a reputation for long bureaucracy.
After concluding it was lost, I called the Canadian Embassy in Berlin. Once you declare the passport lost, it is immediately canceled, even if you find it again, so you want to be sure that it's gone. The Embassy was just a couple of U-bahn stops away, so I ventured there. I keep all my documents in my computer, and the security guy was shocked I had brought it. He put all that gear in a locker, and even confiscated my phone -- more on that later. Inside the consular area, I explained the situation and got the forms. They could help me quickly if I had an urgent need. I did -- my mother was having heart surgery the next day and I had planned my return to be through Toronto so I could visit her in the hospital. If I did not have an urgent need it would have been a longer wait, and the expensive cost of rescheduling flights at the last minute.
The next thing that worked for me is that I still carry my birth certificate with me -- just not with my passport. It used to be possible to travel between Canada and the USA using the birth cert, and Ontario issues a tiny wallet-sized one. I also had my old canceled passport from 2 years ago, and while they insist it is of no value, it does make it easier to show them that you are indeed Canadian, and give them a number to look up in your records so they know it will go smoothly.
One thing I didn't have was a guarantor suitable for a Berlin-issued passport. That would be a German doctor, lawyer etc. who had known me for two years. Fine for Canadians living in Berlin. For others, for a fee, you can use the names of 4 friends who have known you for a long time. Most of those live back in North America, which is 6 hours behind on the clock, making them harder to phone during business hours. The consular section is only open officially from 9-12 but they offered me a special appointment to return with the filled out form and some new passport photos.
I immediately ran into conundrum one when they gave me the form. I have many friends, but I needed their addresses, phone numbers and emails, all of which I keep in my phone -- which was locked away. They have an open PC so I was able to use it to get the information, bizarrely by installing an SSH client onto the PC. Of course, this supposedly secure area should hardly be letting me download and install software. The reason they had forbidden my phone was in part that it might be used as a recording device.
The consular staff sit in an insulated room with an airlock style drawer for exchanging documents. This was the only bit of security that made sense, for I soon learned that the room had a couple of regular inhabitants -- some Canadians who had mental issues who had become homeless and spent their days yelling strange delusions at the consular staff and using the "free calls to Canada" phone. Apparently some policy requires that these people be allowed to come into the Embassy while it's open, to the great frustration of the staff and more genuine applicants. I was told by embassy staff that they have tried to get these men back to Canada, buying them plane tickets and escorting them to the airport, just to have the airlines refuse to take unruly passengers. I suspect they secretly wish the Germans would deport them, which would compel the airline to take them.
Fortunately my friends confirmed my existence (though one decided not to take the call due to the strange caller-ID) and the next day I picked up a very cool looking temporary passport. It's white with gold leaf, with much fancier visa pages, and it would have been fun to keep it. While it's good for a year, this is not what is intended. I would be required to trade it at a Canadian consulate when the new one arrived, in a few weeks, I was told.
Passport in hand (and now guarded with my life) my problems were not over. The visas which allow me to live and work in the USA were also recorded in the lost passport. I had just gone through a bunch of hassle getting them back in April. I had taken digital photos of those visas, and a scan of the passport page before leaving, since I knew that the airline would remove the I-94 visa records from the passport on my flight out to Germany. (This does not happen on trips to Canada.) Normally when you return to the USA they look at the stamp (which stays in the passport) and check their computer records and just give you new cards. When you renew your passport, they use their computer records to recreate your visas.
I flew back to Toronto via Dulles airport, which you can't do through an international transit lounge, so you must enter the USA. I figured this would be a good time to get the Visas back in the temporary passport, as I had 2 hours to kill and it would save me from doing it on my trip to the USA from Toronto. However, the screening agent there refused to accept all the documentation I had in the computer -- and I had everything. It had to be printed, and no, I was not allowed to use their printer. Worse, she thought I should get a full re-examination, which takes time and requires a whole bunch of original documents I did not have with me and could not get quickly. Instead I just went on to Toronto. And my mother is recovering fine, thanks.
The reason I didn't want to do it in Toronto was that my flight was at 7am. While this was not too early to me (having been on European time) getting there 3 hours in advance to leave room for something as complex as a visa re-examination is still a big burden. I had originals fedexed and made sure everything was printed. Nervously I arrived at 4:30am when they opened, to find the predicted lines were not bad at all.
And naturally the agent looked at my super package of documents and photos of the old passport and declared himself highly impressed with how well I had documented things, and decided to just re-issue on the spot rather than make me do the usual wait in secondary screening. That was a relief -- though oddly one gets slightly annoyed at the fact that one has gotten there so early. I flew to San Francisco and landed at 9:30 am, to get a call at 10:30 from the San Francisco consulate: "Your blue passport is ready, would you please come in and exchange your temporary." Just 3 business days after applying in Berlin, my permanent passport was in San Francisco. As much as I might have railed against all the rules, they had performed with incredible speed. An hour later I did the exchange. Now I have to get the visas re-entered in the regular passport, which I'll do this weekend on a trip to Calgary. I hope that goes as smoothly as it did in Toronto.
Now back to the phones. I asked why I could not bring in my phone. The first reason I was given was that I might record things. Personally, I think we should have a right to record our interactions with officials. They are probably recording themselves.
The second reason was that it might be used as a bomb trigger. Well, it could, but in that case I would hardly want to use it as a trigger inside the building while I was inside. If I wanted to leave it behind as a trigger, I would have to get something much bigger into the building.
Third I was told I might use it to photograph the inside of the embassy, for use in an attack. I pointed out the floor to ceiling windows in the consular area, easily seen from outside. I guess the policy is more for use in other less visible consulates.
At least it's not as bad as the new US Embassy, which doesn't even have a front entrance. Instead, they have a tunnel under the street and people enter from the other side of the street, no doubt with even stronger searches and confiscations.
Thanks to the Embassy staff for a superb and fast job, which let me visit my mother while she was recovering. And it's always interesting to get a look inside their world. Of course I still lament about how hard it is to enter both Canada and the USA compared to the procedures involved in entering Europe (barely anything) or moving withing Europe, even to non-EU countries like Switzerland (literally nothing.)
I did not have to even sing Oh, Canada.
- Take photos of your passport pages, visas etc. and store them somewhere safe, possibly encrypted. Go to an internet cafe and make printouts before going before officials. They will not be impressed that you can show them documents on your phone.
- If you can get a small birth certificate, carry it -- in a different location from your passport.
- If you have a 2nd citizenship, get that passport and carry it in a different place. I am entitled to Irish citizenship but I took a long time to getting around to applying. It takes 2 years (at least) and I started a year ago. If I had the Irish passport I would not have needed to get a temporary one to travel.
I do remain perplexed that Ireland will take 2 years (Greece took 16 years for my sister-in-law.) Even Canada takes a year for a citizen certificate for those born to Canadian parents -- starting with 4 months to have them send back an acknowledgement that they received your application and taken your payment. Any online store will send you a note that they got your payment within 5 seconds. The Greeks took 16 years because every 2 years they would come back and point out some "i" that wasn't dotted: I hope the Irish process is not like that. In the past 2 years I have run into at least 3 big reasons why it would have been handy to have the 2nd passport, not including the obvious values it has (living in Europe, short lines on entry to Europe.)
- The lost passport story, of course
- Travel to Israel where Israeli and Israeli border visa stamps will cause some Arab nations to refuse you entry
- A trip to Russia where the Russians were having a visa war with Canada and deliberately were taking 3 weeks to approve visas
If you can get a second one, I really recommend it. In theory you can't enter your home country on one of your other passports but one would hope in the case of a lost passport it would be OK. In fact the Canadian Embassy asked me if I had another passport to save them the effort of making me a temporary one.