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On passport renewals

My last entry has reminded me of a topic that I wanted to dedicate a separate post to, along the lines of Things You Tend To Not Spend Time Thinking Seriously About When In The Process Of Relocating Abroad. The previous article in this series discussed finer points of relocating with kids. This entry is about passport renewals.

It sounds silly, and this is precisely why you would not think seriously about it. Your passport is still valid for a couple of years, what’s to worry about? Plenty, it turns out, as renewal is not a simple thing.

If you relocate abroad with a long-term view, you probably cannot avoid having to renew at least one passport (they are valid for only 5 years for children, anyway) while still living in a foreign country. But if your plans for living overseas do not extend beyond a couple of years or so, my advice to you is to give it a good thought as to whether your current passport(s) will serve you through the end of your residence abroad, and if not, whether you should rather renew them before departure. No matter how many years of validity you still have left.

The reasons behind that are simple enough.

First, passport renewals abroad necessarily involve an appointment at the American embassy/consulate. Based on our brief experience, it is nearly impossible to procure such an appointment. You call the embassy, stay on hold for 45 minutes, and lose your patience in the best case or get disconnected in the worst. You try the website, and it shows every day for the next couple of weeks completely booked up. Dates further in the future are labelled with “the schedule is not yet available”.

I am sure that a patient and persistent person can get around these hurdles, but even Natasha falls short of the required patience.

Second, the embassy will not issue you the passport itself. It will send your documentation to the States, where a normal issuance process will ensue, and that can take months, nowadays. The embassy will then receive your new documents from the Department of State and mail it to you. I am not at all positive whether you can pay for an expedite service at the embassy, but even if you could, the turnaround would probably still be at least a month. If you are an active traveller like us, you may find it very hard to allocate a big enough window in your schedule. Or simply find it very distressing to be without a passport in a country that does not necessarily view driver license as a universal identification.

Third, in England, as in many other countries, you need to have a proper work visa printed into your passport. Every family member has got to have one, either as “worker” or “dependent”. The process to have that done is not too complicated, but it will add some time to the uncomfortable window in your schedule that we just discussed.

But here is the kicker: It costs more to transfer the stupid visa stamp that it costs to initially obtain it in the US. If you do it by mail, the cost will be £160. If you want to do it in person, that option jacks up the rate all the way to £500. Yep, you read it right!

Furthermore, if you are transferring the stamps for all passports in the family, you can execute a single application and pay a single fee covering the primary applicant and all dependants. However, if the primary applicant does not need to transfer the visa, then each dependant has to have a separate application. And pay a separate fee.

Let’s see a show of hands: How many families have all of their passports expiring in close proximity of one another? I thought not.

You will avoid all these problems if you get yourself crisp new passports within the last few months before relocation. It costs money as well, certainly (and you may rightly feel that you wasted some of your money for the unused period remaining on your old passport). But it could save you a mountain of anguish.

So how did we fare?

My passport was expiring in early 2007, and I renewed it via the most expedite service prior to departure on our reconnaissance trip last September. (Some of you may recall how FedEx almost screwed me up with their botched delivery the day before our flight to London; and how my name being misspelled on the new passport, which, coupled with my contemporaneous acute distrust of FedEx, forced me to undertake two 60-mile drives to the passport agency and back to have it corrected during the week that followed.)

Natasha’s passport does not expire until 2012. It is certainly far enough in the future to not worry about.

Both kids’ passports, though, are expiring this December. It was more than a year away at the time that we were leaving, and we sort of shrugged the potential issue off. And did not think about it until early February, when we realized that with our dynamic travel schedule, there are very few requisite windows to have renewals done.

Tons of anguish!

Natasha did try for a while to get the appointment at the embassy, but gave up at some point. And rather than wait until September to try for an appointment again – with no certain success – we figured to deal with the renewal while the girls are spending a whole month in America. The good old US Dept of State caused us some discomfort of its own, by taking literally until the last day to send back the new documents, but all’s well that ends well.

British border agents are certainly chattier and friendlier than American ones, and there was no problem for the kids re-entering England with two sets of passports (new valid ones and old visa-stamped ones), but I immediately got to attending to the transfer of visas afterwards. I managed to get my employer to cover the outlandish costs described above, and in a few days this topic will be entirely behind me.

Maybe, you’ll deal with all of this the same way…