Your passport is the most valuable thing you carry when travelling. And although it’s not exactly irreplaceable, anybody who has been through the drama of having their passport lost or stolen abroad (myself included) will tell you they guard it 100 times more carefully now.
I’m freaked about about being stranded abroad without my passport! What happens if my passport is lost or stolen? – Ben
Ben, join the club. If your passport is lost or stolen abroad, it’s no cakewalk. I’ll share my own story, as well as the stories of two other travellers who have had to deal with passport issues while in remote corners of the world. The good news is that replacing your passport abroad isn’t the end of the world, especially if you take certain precautions which we’ll discuss.
“The Passport Incident”
A few years ago, I had a home base on the Caribbean island of Grenada. A house-guest who was staying with me turned out to be a con-man(!) who made away with my passport (and thousands of dollars in cash that I had stashed around the house, including some with my passport).
Nora’s Passport Tip: If you’re stashing cash, don’t keep it with your passport. It’s too easy to lose too much.
(See also: 14 Ways Experts Carry Cash While Travelling)
Ayngelina Brogan publishes the culinary travel site Bacon is Magic, sharing the best food around the world and how to make it at home.
She was in Asia with her partner at the time, travelling overland from Phenom Penh to Saigon.
“We were asked to show our passports so many times I had thrown my money belt into my messenger bag. After we checked into our hotel I forgot to remove it. And then it happened. Less than an hour in Saigon we went for a stroll. A scooter came up on the sidewalk to drive in between us. The Ex let go of my hand to make space and they slashed my bag off my body with a knife.” She lost everything: her DSLR camera, credit cards, debit cards, cash, and of course, her passport.
Ayngelina’s Passport Tip: Keep your passport as close to your body as possible when in transit. If not in a money belt, put it in your bra or an inside pocket.
On his second last day in Sabah Malaysia (a province on the island of Borneo), his passport went missing.
“It was last seen in my guide’s car before he dropped me off at my hotel. I’d been at my hotel one hour when I realized my passport was missing and called my guide to search his car. It wasn’t there. We had, however, stopped at a convenience store right before we arrived at my hotel. My passport was sitting on top of my luggage in the back seat. So, I assume it was stolen, but I can’t be sure it wasn’t lost.”
Matt’s Passport Tip: Know exactly where your passport is at all times and make sure it’s always put away. When you’re travelling, keep it in the same pocket so you are always conscious of where it should be. When outside the airport, keep it in the same place in your bag and never remove it unless necessary.
Then it Got Complicated
Although sometimes it’s relatively straightforward to replace your passport abroad, it’s often complicated, with travel itineraries thrown in the lurch or embassies you can’t get to.
My passport was stolen on a Friday. Three days later, I had a flight to catch from Grenada to Panama for a house-sitting gig. I called the nearest Canadian embassy – which was in Barbados, another island and country entirely. I was told I would miss my flight to Panama; they outlined a lengthy process of mailing various documents to Barbados in order to get a replacement passport (20 business days). If I was lucky, I could get a temporary passport to allow me to travel to Panama sooner, but it would still take at least a week. Somewhere in there I’d need to make a special trip to Barbados as well, and get my mother in Canada to visit a passport office with my original birth certificate – my only remaining piece of ID showing my citizenship (driver’s licenses won’t suffice for a passport replacement).
Ayngelina actually didn’t have any complications or travel disruptions, but Matt sure did.
“I couldn’t fly to Kuala Lumpur without a passport, but the only way I could get a new passport was to fly to Kuala Lumpur. So, that was neat. I missed my return flight to Kuala Lumpur and subsequent flights. Instead, I had to drive across town to a government office to apply for some kind of special travel permit. The office denied my permit application. At this point I was extremely frustrated. I went outside and called the Canadian Embassy. I told them they needed to call this office and get me a permit right away. They did and I had the permit in an hour. I bought a ticket to Kuala Lumpur and went straight to the Canadian Embassy.”
Matt’s Passport Tip: Call your embassy right away and ask them what to do. They’re the experts.
Both Matt and I missed our scheduled international onward flights and had to purchase new ones, at our own expense.
Passport Tip: Be familiar with your travel insurance policy; it may cover the cost of your replacement flights in cases like these. (Matt didn’t have insurance for that trip, and my policy didn’t provide trip cancellation benefits).
The Passport Replacement Process
I knew there had to be a quicker way to get a new passport than to wait two weeks for a temporary one, and the clock was ticking since I had committed to a house-sitting job in Panama and the homeowner had her own international travel plans to keep. So I visited the immigration office in Grenada, and asked for an emergency document to allow me to return to Canada, where I knew I could get an expedited passport in 24 hours. Luckily the weekend was not yet upon me, so I raced around the island collecting police reports and other required paperwork, finding an airline that would accept an emergency travel document instead of a passport (not all do), buying the ticket, and taking it all to Grenadian immigration. After a mildly-frustrating bureaucratic process, I was issued a temporary travel document to get me back to Canada over the weekend. On Monday morning I was at the Canadian passport office, and by Tuesday morning I had a new passport and was on a flight to Panama, only a day later than planned. All of this, however, came at a cost of thousands of dollars.
Nora’s Passport Tip: The only reason I was able to make things happen as quickly as I did was because I had copies of all my ID handy, which aided in getting my emergency travel document.
Ayngelina had some angels on her side in Vietnam.
“Locals on the street [who saw the scooter driver take her bag] signalled for us to stay as they went to get help. They returned with several more people on scooters who spoke English and told us to get on the back so they could take us to the police station. They stayed with us for two hours as I wrote the incident in English, they translated to Vietnamese then waited to ensure the police stamped the report. Then to get the passport. At the Canadian consulate I met sympathetic staff who did not want me to miss out on travelling up through the country to Hanoi. I completed a new application and they told me they would process it and send it to Hanoi so I could pick it up when I arrived five days later.”
Ayngelina’s Passport Tip: Go to the police station. Having a police report from the local station helped expedite the process to receive my replacement passport.
Once Matt made it to Kuala Lumpur, his passport replacement process was relatively straightforward.
“In Kuala Lumpur I spent a couple of days filling out applications and getting certain documents notarized. After about a week, I had a temporary passport to use, and a little later my real one arrived in the mail [to Taiwan, where he was living and working at the time].”
Matt’s Passport Tip: I keep a file with photos of all my ID — birth certificate, passport, drivers license — stored online. So, they can never be lost and are accessible from any place with an Internet connection. I also carry a small ID wallet with alternate forms of ID that is always tucked away in a certain pocket in my luggage.
When Your Passport is Lost or Stolen Abroad: Final Tips
If I had tried to replace my passport abroad instead of flying back to Canada to do it, I would have had problems because I didn’t have my birth certificate (or any other documentation proving my citizenship; a driver’s license won’t suffice). Now when I’m abroad, I have my original birth certificate with me, kept separate from my passport.
For parting advice, both Matt and Ayngelina stress that it’s important to have backups of your ID and multiple ways to access it. In addition to paper copies, all three of us have digital photos/copies of our ID. Ayngelina emails them to herself under an inconspicuous subject line, and Matt does something similar. I have an encrypted folder with photos of my ID (and important passwords) stored in my Dropbox account, as well as on my computer, and additionally on a USB stick that I carry along with an extra credit card and emergency stash of cash. (For more info on this, check out my trusty USB Stick Trick).
And just in case you think that having your passport lost or stolen abroad could the the end of the world, Ayngelina actually admits that she was grateful for her experience in Vietnam, because she’s no longer afraid (you can read about her full experience here). She has since had some troubles abroad and it doesn’t phase her. I wish I could be as zen as her, but I’ll admit, it’s often travel’s mis-adventures that make for not only the most entertaining stories, but also the greatest learning experiences, and sometimes, a glimpse into what a beautiful world we live in.