Where will a damaged passport get you?
'My dog ate my passport,' said Ross Taylor. 'Fine,' said a British passport man. 'You're not coming in here,' said Indonesian immigration. Simon Calder sniffs out the sorry tale of a dog-eared document
Saturday 24 February 1996
Ross Taylor, 34, is a barrister who lives in west London. He returned home one day to discover Bobby had rummaged through a document case, finding the passport to his tasteand munching his way through half the coat of arms on the cover. Mr Taylor was due to travel to Bali three days later, and realised he might face trouble leaving the country.
"I dialled Petty France, the passport office I'd always been to, but was told there was a new national number. So I tried it." But the interactive Passport Agency line (0990 210410) turned out to be a telephonic dead- end, with only pre-recorded advice.
Mr Taylor rang immigration at Heathrow and eventually found a helpful human. Had Bobby, he was asked, swallowed the number, photograph or expiry date? If not, the passport was valid. "Those things were present, so I thought 'No worries'. Just in case, I asked him if he had a direct line for the Passport Agency. He gave me a central London number, but it just referred me to the new national number."
Mr Taylor then enlisted the help of the Independent. We could only confirm the same information cul-de-sac and ask how Bobby was feeling on his diplomatic diet. On Friday afternoon, Mr Taylor took his dog-eared (but still officially valid) document to the airport.
Check-in was easy. "The British Airways people thought it was a joke, and the passport woman was more interested in the dog."
As Bobby was settling into the kennels for his winter vacation, Ross Taylor was landing in Jakarta. "The man looked at my passport, and then waved me into a room. The British Airways rep said 'You're going back to Heathrow'. I said 'No - I'm going to Bali'. She said 'Immigration says you must go back'."
Mr Taylor demanded to speak to the chief official, with whom the dialogue took on a Pinteresque quality. "He said 'This is a valid passport'. I said 'Yes'. He said 'It's damaged'. I said 'My dog ate the cover, but it's valid. May I go to Bali?' 'If you get a new passport'.'Where do I get a new passport?' 'London'. 'Can you not issue me a temporary permit, so I can get a new passport from the British Embassy on Monday?' 'No'. That was it."
Mr Taylor was escorted back on to the plane. "I felt like a criminal. Everyone was told 'He's being deported'. For all they knew, I was a drug smuggler."
A fellow traveller suggested Mr Taylor apply for sanctuary in Kuala Lumpur, where a refuelling stop was planned. He could get a new passport in the Malaysian capital on Monday morning and head back to Bali. Mr Taylor seized upon the idea. But at the airport, an action-replay of the Indonesian debacle ensued. Mr Taylor's last resort was chauvinism. "I said I'd only come to Malaysia because I'd heard Malaysians were more sensible and intelligent than the Indonesians."
Suddenly the official's mood changed. "He said 'If you can contact the British consulate, I will give you a temporary permit until Monday.' A circus of telephone calls ensued while the 747 waited in case Mr Taylor was deported from a second country in a single evening. After a flurry of diplomatic wrong numbers, Mr Taylor was finally allowed in.He checked into a hotel, and at dawn on Monday began booking flights and applying for a passport. He was told it would take six days, but the passport was ready in an hour.
British Airways was less than generous to its travel-weary passenger. Having been flown from Indonesia against his will, Mr Taylor had to buy another pounds 400 ticket to Jakarta and back.The airline tried, unsuccessfully, to make him pay again for the Kuala Lumpur-London leg that he had not yet flown.Mr Taylor estimates he is out of pocket by pounds 1,100, which would buy a lot of Pedigree Chum.
Seventy-two hours after leaving London, Mr Taylor was allowed into Indonesia - by the same official who first identified the "problem". Mr Taylor thoroughly enjoyed his holiday - perhaps because he desperately needed it by then. "I'm hoping to return to Bali for a longer period."
Bobby just growls, and looks mischievous. What to do if a dog eats your passport
Becoming a stateless person can get you into a real state. There is no legal requirement to show a passport in order to leave the country, but it makes foreign travel - and re-entering Britain - a lot easier. Until this year, you could apply for a British Visitor's Passport over the counter at post offices. This document would allow you into a number of countries (but not Indonesia). Now, wherever you are heading, there is no choice but to apply for another passport.
The chances of getting one in a hurry will be enhanced if you live in or near London, or can base yourself there. Ideally you should have no commitments for a day or two, either. As Mr Taylor (above) discovered, telephoning the Passport Agency is unlikely to produce a worthwhile result. Instead, call in at the passport office at Petty France in central London, open 8.15am to 4pm, Mon-Fri. Get there by 7am to be well ahead in the queue.
A speedy replacement is much easier if you can produce your old passport (or the remains thereof). If not, you need to get the form and photographs signed by a "respectable" person - so ideally take an MP, vicar or doctor with you. Supporting evidence, such as a non-refundable, fixed-date air ticket, may help if it reinforces the urgency of obtaining a replacement.
If you need a new visa, too, then your problems are only just beginning. While the Australian High Commission can issue visas on the spot, other nations are less agreeable. Even if the visa is a separate document, as in the case of Russia, your luck may still be out. The visa is issued for a specific passport number, and immigration officials at Moscow and St Petersburg are well-versed in picking out offenders. You may be able to argue your way in, with the help of some hard currency, but that supposes you have been allowed on the plane in the first place. Airlines are extremely sensitive about transporting potential deportees, mainly because of the fines imposed for landing undesirable aliens. (If an airline brings to Britain a passenger who has no right of entry, it is fined pounds 2,000.)
Finally, there is always a risk that a foreign dog may eat your passport a few days or hours before you are due to return home. If you have time to organise a replacement, then the nearest British Consulate should be able to issue one (much easier if you have the number and date of issue of the old one).
Should you lose your passport at the airport as you are about to come home, the airline may well make arrangements for you to travel without a passport - if you can convince the staff that you will be allowed into Britain. On the one occasion when I was obliged to travel without identification, when my passport was lifted on the Barcelona Metro, Iberia made all the arrangements for an airline representative to meet the aircraft at Heathrow. I got through a special Immigration channel much more swiftly than if I had been in possession of a passport.
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