8 mistakes even smart Americans make with passports

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People who travel internationally are generally among the savviest travelers. But they can still make mistakes — and some of the most common ones involve passports.

Here are eight of the worst:

1. Forgetting that Canada and Mexico are indeed foreign countries. During decades of working in the travel industry, I’ve almost never had clients leave their passports home when traveling to Europe, Africa, Asia, etc. But I’ve lost track of those who forget them when they’re crossing the border into Canada or Mexico.

To be fair, although it’s now been almost seven years since the requirements were instituted, travel to Canada and Mexico didn’t used to require passports. And it’s not open for discussion. One CEO client, who shall remain nameless, realized that he had left his passport at home on a day he planned to go right to the airport after work for a Canadian ski trip. He decided he could talk his way through it. He was wrong. But Air Canada did rebook him for free the next morning.

2. Forgetting that children’s passports last only five years — not ten. I worked with a family on an Alaskan cruise who told me they checked and all their passports were valid. The father had checked his passport, remembering that the family had gotten them all at the same time, more than five years prior.

Fortunately, his wife noticed the problem while packing the week before, and while it took a day spent in downtown Los Angeles and a rush fee, they were able to get their son a new passport in time for the cruise.

3. Not always keeping the passport in a regular place at home. I try to always return my passport to the same drawer every time I take it out for any reason. A friend told me the story of her well-traveled brother who couldn’t find his passport anywhere. “He took apart his luggage, his valise, his coat, everything. He had to get a new passport. Once he got a new passport, he went to his printer to copy it … and found his old passport inside!”

4. Forgetting your passport in a hotel room safe. Even if you’re sure you won’t get in a rush at the last minute, it’s not a bad idea to set up some sort of reminder, such as an alarm on your phone, to make sure you leave with your passport — and whatever else you’ve put in the safe.

For “safe,” also substitute any “safe” place you might put your passport in a hotel room. My husband once took his passport out of his backpack so he’d have it easily accessible for his early morning flight. And he only realized in the cab that it was still on the bureau. (Fortunately, the hotel was able to send another cab with the passport.)

5. Running out of pages. Some countries require blank pages to stamp entry visas. South Africa requires two blank pages. Period. It is no longer possible to have additional pages added to a passport either, so if you’re running low, you may need to get a new passport even when yours is still valid. Yes, it’s time-consuming and expensive when you just need more pages. And, no, the government doesn’t care.

6. Not realizing that some countries insist that a passport be valid three to six months after arrival to enter. Much of Western Europe, including England, has the “six months” rule. And yes, it may be silly that a country won’t let you in with a “valid” passport, but rules are rules. A travel agent in our office once got caught on this one when she was stopping in London for a night on her way to Israel. Even though she had a ticket showing she’d be in England less than 24 hours, British Airways denied her boarding.

7. Not checking visa requirements. Americans have it relatively easy when traveling abroad. But our strict policies for entering the U.S. do mean an increasing number of countries are adding “reciprocity fees,” which are more a tax than a visa. Some have to be paid in advance. Many countries still require visas, and it may take a week or longer to get one.

8. Losing track of time. We’ve all had the experience of finding something in a cupboard that expired or was forgotten years ago, or suddenly realizing it’s been a decade since you’ve seen a friend. So, even when you are sure your passport doesn’t expire for years, it’s not a bad idea to double-check once in a while. This last mistake, curiously, is the one I’ve known the most people to make, and they usually say afterwards, “I thought I just renewed my passport a few years ago”

Now, many Americans will travel abroad their entire lives without making any of the above mistakes. But it always helps to be careful.

After all, travel horror stories are always more interesting when they happen to someone else.

Janice Hough

I've been in the travel industry since I graduated from Stanford. Back in the days when computers were new, and air travel was comfortable. These days I'm also a travel and comedy writer. All opinions are strictly my own, and not necessarily those of Elliott.org

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  • PolishKnightUSA

    One tip when booking a trip is to make a fresh scan of your passport page and upload it to a dropbox. That takes care of checking expiration dates and making sure you locate it beforehand.

    Another tip is that if you’re in a foreign country where you’re not “in” with the locals, carry it with you at all times and get a special carrying case that you can hide on your person if necessary. Many countries have a requirement you must carry it on you at all times when you’re away from your local hotel. Period. They can take you to the police station and make you have someone take it there AND maybe fine you as well. This applies for the USA as well. My wife with her green card would go to the community pool and not bring her green card (obviously) but technically, she was in violation of the law.

  • David L.

    To add on to #2 – Children’s Passports…You can NOT mail in the application for renewal as you can with an adult Passport. You have to physically go down to a Passport Center.

    In addition, absent a court order specifying sole custody for one parent, BOTH Parents have to be present to both apply for and renew the Passport of a minor.

    I ALMOST had to learn these things the hard way…

  • judyserienagy

    I don’t use safes in hotel rooms, but if I did, I’d use one of the best tips I’ve ever read: put one of your shoes on top of the safe. You’ll always remember your valuables because you can’t go out without your shoe!

  • James

    I will miss adding pages.

    The silliest visa issue I saw was with Russia, who wanted a “clean” passport. I had about two years left on a passport that had traveled to five continents, so was well used. When I tried to visit Russia, they insisted I get a new passport. Since at that time, you could only apply one month before arrival for the Russian visa, that meant getting an expedited passport, then an expedited visa. All told, it was around $600.

  • Bill___A

    Thank you, you’ve made many valid points. It is good information to have. On the “six month” issue, it is my understanding that many European countries require your passport to be valid for three months past the date you leave the country for home. I got this information by reading the entry requirements for UK and Germany.

  • Justin S

    Why would a country want 2 clean pages no matter what?

  • AJPeabody

    The first time we used our latest new passports, the nice TSA lady saw that we hadn’t signed them yet. She said we could not just sign them at the gate since now she had to see if it was really the signature of the named person (although there were our photos). Luckily, she allowed us to use our drivers licenses to prove our signatures. And she did give us a pen that she knew would write on the passport paper without skipping.

  • Steve 907

    Because they do. “Ours is not to reason why, ours is simply to do or die.” Only an American would ask such a question.

  • fairmont1955

    I’m a big fan of having an electronic copy accessible via the cloud or some secure place. Just in case anything happens when traveling, you have that copy handy and can get to it from anywhere there’s Internet.

  • FQTVLR

    We always lock a shoe in the safe.

  • KennyG

    Unless its a shoe that you will be wearing on checkout from the hotel, it may not do you any good. But pretty good idea in any event.

  • sofar

    Make sure your passport stays in good (pristine) condition. My friend just got denied boarding on a flight to Mexico because the corners on her passport were a bit dog-eared. She posted a picture of it, and it wasn’t like the passport was in really rough shape — just frayed corners (no damage to the photo or any of the important info). I bought a plastic case for my passport after that.

  • Jim

    There is a form that can be completed that allows one parent to apply for the passport in person.

  • Mark

    Are you *sure* the six month rule applies to the UK? I have a relative visiting soon – and the IATA visa checker doesn’t seem to think that there is a six month rule in place. http://www.iatatravelcentre.com/

  • Alan Gore

    Per recent discussion, airlines are not supposed to delve into travel document details for passengers, except for basics like expiration dates and the presence of a visa for the destination country. These are items they might get fined for if they ignore.

    But if they see a chance to make extra money out of a dogeared corner on your passport, they will take it. Let me guess: the dogeared passport problem could only be resolved by buying a whole new ticket at the walkup price, right?

  • JewelEyed

    Yes, how dare anyone question an illogical bureaucratic request. Clearly an American. :P

  • JewelEyed

    For people who might have missed the adding pages announcement (like I did)

    “Beginning January 1, 2016 we will discontinue the service of
    adding additional visa pages to U.S. passports. Requests for additional
    visa pages may only be submitted until December 31, 2015.

    Passport holders in need of additional space in their passports will
    need to renew their passports by mail using form DS-82. If you renew
    your passport from outside of the United States you will automatically
    be issued a larger 52-page book. If you renew your passport within the
    United States, please indicate your preference for a 28-page or 52-page
    book by checking the appropriate box at the top of the form. There is
    no fee difference for book sizes.”

  • JewelEyed
  • Mark

    state.gov also says that passport only needs to be valid for the duration of stay :)

  • Mark

    That’s pretty decent that they are offering 52 pages by default to citizens living outside the US – and that the 52-page / 28-page books are the same price. UK charges ~$20 more for a large book.

  • Justin S

    Sorry for asking an honest question…

    …but seriously, is there an actual paperwork issue that would require them to require 2 full pages open? Larger than normal stampers? Just honestly curious.

  • sofar

    They actually re-booked her for free the next day.They went right to the passport agency (lucky they were in a city that had one) and got a replacement.

    So the airline didn’t stand to make any money. I did a little Googling, and apparently Mexico is SUPER stringent. The gate agent rejected two other people in line due to damaged passports. One just had a little string hanging off where the cover had started to unravel. The person jokingly offered to “bite the string off,” and the gate agent snapped and said if she allowed him on the plane, he’d just get turned around by Mexican customs — at the airline’s expense. So, while the airline didn’t stand to make any money by rebooking, they didn’t want a hassle on their hands of anyone getting turned away in Mexico and having to cart them back.

  • DZN1

    Good point. What I typically do is create a new email account just for that trip (in case the password gets compromised) and only have the electronic scans of the passports in there. Once the trip is done, I delete the scan and some email providers delete the account after 6 months of inactivity.

    Also please note that when using a scan to get back home, you may need a police report or official document to certify why you’re not using an official passport. My buddy and I had our laptop bags stolen 3 hours before our flight back, and he needed a police report along with the copy of his passport to get through CBP (I had my passport on me so I didn’t get mine stolen)

  • BMG4ME

    Thanks, a great list.

  • John McDonald

    RE 6 month rule – it applies if entering the USA eg. from Australia with the worlds best passport, even with a paid for, U.S. visa waiver.

    >>>
    6. Not realizing that some countries insist that a passport be valid three to six months after arrival to enter. Much of Western Europe, including England, has the “six months” rule.

  • cscasi

    I need to educate myself on that point. I have traveled in Europe for the past 53 years and have never been asked to present my Passport when I am away from the hotel in which I was staying; save going to a bank to conduct business or perhaps fro some special fares obtained at a ticket counter at a train station. Perhaps if the police stop someone for an infraction (something I have not had happen) that could be the case.
    I will say that in the mid “fifties” I lived in France for three years (my father was in the U.S. Army ) and I do know that during that time, my mother had to carry a special identity card showing her status. She forgot it one time and was asked for it by the police doing spot checks, was taken to the station and my father had to go to the station and take care of things. But, that was over 50 years ago.
    Maybe I just have been lucky.

  • Carchar

    A disappointment I have is that more countries are having a traveler go through electronic entry, so the passport does not get stamped. A friend and I were meeting up in Sydney. She was disappointed that she did not get an Australia stamp. I must have gotten into the “wrong” line and so, mine was stamped. I guess an advantage is that one doesn’t run out of pages as quickly.

  • nyctraveler

    I agree. I’m always disappointed when I visit a new place and there’s no stamp to prove it. Happened to me the first time I went to Venice. The customs agent reviewed my documents, asked a few questions, and just handed me back my passport – no stamp. :(

  • Mundane Lustrator

    I think the TSA lady wasn’t being so “nice” but more authoritarian than necessary. You only need a government-issued photo ID. If she actually couldn’t accept a passport if it wasn’t signed (we’ll never know because TSA rules are “secret,” she could have just asked to see your driver’s license.