8 mistakes even smart Americans make with passports

By | February 17th, 2016

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.

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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.

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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.

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

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