I’ve lived in the Southeast Asian nation of 7,500 islands for the last four years and was thoroughly settled in when the whole Coronavirus pandemic went from a back-page news story to overtaking our world.
(I took a domestic flight within the Philippines in February and when I took off, I was one of only three people on the plane wearing masks and got strange looks. But when I flew back five days later, about half of the passengers were wearing masks. That's how fast it happened.)
Unable to travel to my girlfriend because of strict lockdown measures that went into place literally overnight, I was bunkered down in an old hotel as society started breaking down around me.
It was time to get the hell out!
I traveled from the Philippines to Dubai and then on to New York, landing on March 22, 2020. (Little did I know I’d land in the world’s Covid epicenter at the time, but that’s another sh*t show.)
Since then, I’ve been safe and healthy here with family in Connecticut, a little stir crazy but no worse for wear. I have no idea when they'll let tourists back into the Philippines, but I want to be ready.
You see, my US passport is still perfectly valid…but just until April of 2021. I don't know if you're aware, but most countries have an entry requirement that your passport must be good for at least six months after you land, or they won't let you in. So, I thought this was either the best time or worst time in history to renew my passport!
My only other option is an expedited passport renewal service, which means paying big money to a private agency who reserves your line in queue and then processes your application for you.
I called about ten of them around the country and got a wide range of information and options, some of which were so scary how responsible and inaccurate they were.
I ended up choosing a passport expediter agency in New York City because:
1) they actually had someone answering the phone,
2) Haidy (we're on a first-name basis) was helpful and answered all of my 100 questions patiently, and
3) New York is a short drive away if I have to go hunt them down if they disappear with my passport.
Either way, since they have my passport application, new photos, plenty of my money, and my actual passport, I’ll at least be in line once they do open up, which is sure to bring a rush of thousands of eager travelers.
So, I estimate my brand-new passport will show up at my front door anywhere from mid-September to right before Christmas time, 2025.
Since I have plenty of time to plot my grand escape from the US, I thought I’d do a little geeking-out on the whole concept of passports.
Here’s what I found:
- Currently, about 147 million Americans have valid US passports, which is a major portion (about 45 percent) of our total 325 million population. For some reason, I have it in my mind that Americans don’t travel internationally a whole lot, but that’s an impressive number of passports.
- If you live in the United States and don't own a passport, don't despair – there are still plenty of places you can travel. In fact, you can Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands, all thanks to your US citizenship.
- There are more than 9,000 passport offices in the US, including some US post offices that provide passport services.
(But do you want to hear a pro traveler tip? Head over to your local AAA for complete passport services – you’ll find almost no line and great service!)
- If you need to renew your passport quickly, you may try one of the rush or expedited passport agencies who can do it as quickly as overnight (for a massive fee). Just Google expedited passport services in your area, and you'll find a ton of listings for different agencies. What's their speedy secret?
These agencies basically deal in passport appointments with the US passport services. They work with a wide network of agencies and sub-agencies who reserve every walk-in appointment they can get well ahead of time, and then resell those appointments to your agency. So, when you fill out their passport renewal paperwork for an expediter (like I am now), the agreement will include a whole stack of authorizations with sub-agencies.
- Our antiquated system of physical, paper passports also leaves the door open for fraud, theft, and counterfeiting. In fact, INTERPOL reports that more than 40 million US passports have been stolen (not lost) since 2002.
- Living or traveling abroad a lot, I do know that you can get a counterfeit US passport for about $5,000 USD or so in places like Thailand or Cambodia. (I know a guy who knows a guy.)
Of course, we expect that North Korea is the largest producer of counterfeit US passports since that’s also true of our US currency.
- Early forms of passports were just letters from rulers and officials promising safe passage, but they stood out because written letters were few and far between.
- The concept for the modern passport can probably be traced back to 1414 when England's King Henry V issued documents that allowed travelers to prove their identity and nationality as they embarked upon foreign shores.
- The first US passports were printed in 1783 under the watchful eye of Benjamin Franklin.
- But the birth of our modern system of passports started in World War One, when travelers crossing borders needed an international crossing card and documentation, including a photograph. This was a measure put in place after a German spy was caught trying to pass into Britain with a fake US passport.
- Each country’s passport looks different, but all of them have a cover in one of only four colors:
Red is the most popular color for passports around the world, typically used by all communist/former Soviet countries as well as most European Union countries and Andean Mountain nations (Ecuador, Peru, Columbia, etc.).
Blue is the second most popular passport color, including the US but also South American trade union countries and 15 Caribbean nations. By the way, did you know that US passports only went blue in 1976?!)
Most Muslim countries feature green passports, including a good number of African nations, and the remainder of Africa and some Pacific countries like New Zealand have the rare black passport.
- Passport photos are not your time to take a fun selfie that displays your unique personality. In fact, there’s a long list of restrictions while taking passport photos:
- You cannot wear any hat, cap, or head covering;
- You can’t wear sunglasses;
- You can’t have hair cover any part of her face;
- You can’t wear any uniform or official or work outfit (except if you work for a commercial airline);
- And even smiling was banished from passport photos in 2004 – you have to keep a neutral expression.
When I went for a new passport last month, they actually made me re-take my photo three times because I had a hard time NOT smiling!
- But governments aren’t just being the fun police with these restrictions – they’re trying to make sure facial recognition software can works unobstructed.
For that reason, if you have any significant facial cosmetic surgery, get a new facial tattoo (sorry Mike Tyson and the dude from the Hangover!), or even get a new facial piercing, you’ll need to get a new passport photo!
- In the early days of passports, there were issued for an entire family, and your passport photo could even be a family photo.
- A US passport comes with 28 pages, which includes 17 pages that are blank and ready for visa, entry, or exit stamps when you visit other countries.
- But if you run out of blank pages, you can send in your passport and have them add 24 extra interior pages. You can do that up to three times, so there are some US passports with a whopping 124 pages!
- Most countries now also require that your passport will be good for three to six months after your entry. So, even if your US passport does not expire for 5 months and 29 days, you may still be denied entry!
A good number of people get caught with this little-known and unwritten rule, and they’re not allowed to board or forced to get on a plane and head home from their destination’s airport – at their own expense!
- Immigrations officials in any country can also deny entry if a passport is damaged. But it’s a completely subjective standard, and you can have a disgruntled or cranky immigration officer tell you that you can’t enter just because your passport is faded, ripped, worn, or damaged by water at one time.
While this isn’t common (people usually get their passports renewed if they’re in bad shape), I did have this happen to a friend – he arrived in Costa Rica, but the contentious immigration officer wouldn’t let him in based on the condition of his US passport! He had to get on a flight right back to the US and wasted a ton of time and money.
- Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II is the only person in the world who doesn’t need a passport to travel internationally. Even the Pope and the rest of the British royal family all need passports for travel, but not the Queen!
- Presidents from around the world do need passports to travel, but they receive special diplomatic passports that allow them to travel freely to most countries without visas. In the US and other nations, these presidential passports are good for life and extend to their immediate families.
- Passports may seem boring and utilitarian, but there are some cool passports around the world. For instance, when you shine a UV light on a Norwegian passport, an embedded holographic photo displays the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis!
Under a UV light, Canadian passports also show photos of the country’s landmarks.
And when you scroll forward through passports from Finland and Slovenia quickly, the images at the bottom display like a flicker book, creating a moving picture.
- Even though they are not countries or even international borders, you can get your passport stamped at Machu Picchu (Peru) or Easter Island (territory of Chile).
- Most countries try to add features that make them difficult to counterfeit, but a passport from Nicaragua is actually the hardest in the world to forge. In fact, passports from this poor Latin American nation include 89 separate security features like watermarks and holograms. (Which is interesting because I lived in Nicaragua and I don’t really know why they have such high security.)
- Do you remember the 2004 Steven Spielberg movie, The Terminal? In that flick, main character Tom Hanks is forced to live in an airport terminal for a while due to visa problems and the rouge status of his home nation.
Well, that plot is based on a real situation in which an Iranian man couldn’t present his passport to immigration officials in France’s Charles de Gaulle Airport. The Iranian refugee, Mehran Karimi Nasseri, had his travel documents stolen in 1988, so he was stuck inside the airport and not allowed to leave or pass immigration.
He ended up living in the airport terminal for 17 years until he had to be taken to a hospital in 2006. 17 Years – that's insane!
- Each year, a metric called the Henley Passport Index (HPI) ranks all 199 passports in the world based on how many countries you can enter without a visa.
- Singapore is currently ranked as the most powerful passport in the world at #199, and the United States is not far behind at #171. But the United Arab Emirates (UAE) may soon take the top spot because they’re under negotiations to join the Schengen Area countries.
- And if you’re wondering, Afghanistan is the least powerful passport in the world, according to the Henley Passport Index (HPI), as it only allows visa-free entry into 25 countries.
Wish me luck getting my passport back one day soon – and getting home to the Philippines!