The man who pays his way

The notice is written in red and underlined, so it must be important. "To all our customers" announces a sign on the window of Treats café in Belgrave Road in central London, tucked around the back of Victoria station. "Please kindly note. This is not a waiting area for the Passport Office. Staff are under instructions to ask you to leave once you have enjoyed your purchases. Thank you."

As it happened, I was using Treats as a waiting area for the Passport Service. The London office, in a building known as Globe House, stands directly opposite. I had time for a cup of tea before my appointment to watch the backstage dramas designed to help you leave the country. First, though, because you don't want ever to need to come here, stop reading now.

Go and find your passport, and those of your loved ones, and check the expiry date. If it is nine months or less – on or before 8 July 2012 – then make plans to renew it in the next week or two. You can carry over unexpired time: ie 10 years plus whatever duration remains on your existing document. Apply now, and you can expect rapid service, as it is low season for renewals. And the hard-working staff at the frontline of human emotion at Globe House can focus on the desperate folk who need to renew their passports in a hurry and are prepared to pay £129.50 for the four-hour Premium service.

To liberate unlucky or disorganised travellers in 240 minutes is quite an undertaking. You turn up armed with a completed form, the old passport and a couple of photographs – which is, according to the staff, where things most often go wrong. Some applicants use a picture clearly taken many years ago, rather than "taken within the last month" as the rules demand. (In case you assume this reflects female vanity, men are by far the worst offenders.)

As long as the photo is not a portrait of yourself as a young man, the interview to establish your identity and eligibilty takes an average of just four minutes. The clock starts ticking from the moment you hand over the fee.

While you go off to mooch around Victoria (Wilton Road, nearby, has plenty of cafés), the "back-office" team at Globe House process your application – which, within a couple of hours, should end up in the "ROPE" room. The staff in the Regional Office Printing Equipment room make passports by the hundreds.

Your personal information is printed in what looks like mirror writing, then attached to a blank passport and laminated. The electronic chip is primed. Only after one final check is made, against the original application, does the passport "go live".

What if you are booked to fly away tomorrow and simply can't find your passport? Or must suddenly travel abroad for family reasons? Some flexibility is built into the system: go to Globe House and plead your case. But as glum faces across the road at Treats testify, this is a bureaucratic last resort. No customer is able to "enjoy their purchases"; they just want to be elsewhere.

If you did continue reading, thank you. Now check that passport; and programme your favourite electronic gizmo to send you a reminder, nine months to the day before your passport expires.

Red tape in the East

All borders are porous, but islands such as Britain have an advantage in the natural frontier provided by the sea. The Independent Traveller has gone behind the scenes at Heathrow airport, to explore what goes on backstage when you fly home (see related links). The constant problem for the authorities in any nation is to balance security with welcoming visitors.

Egypt dramatically increased visitor numbers from the UK by switching to a simple "visa on arrival" system. The old Soviet Empire, too, is learning: Ukraine dropped its demand for advance application (complete with payment in Postal Orders), as did Georgia. But the former British Empire is moving backwards.

One reason Sri Lanka has proved successful in attracting British visitors relative to India is because British passport holders need no visa. Starting on New Year's Day, though, the Indian Ocean island makes "Electronic Travel Authorization" mandatory, with a $50 fee to go with it.

Mauritius and the Seychelles, neither of which demand visas, will relish some new business.