Passport problems can elicit very real physical responses in travelers. On a blazing afternoon in Jakarta a few years ago, I realized I didn’t have enough pages in my passport to get to my next destination beyond Indonesia. I had one of those skin-crawling, heart-racing moments of terror. Reason went out the window, and chaos settled in for the ride. But that kind of response is exactly what travel experts tell you to avoid.
“My first word of advice when somebody loses their passport is: Don’t panic,” says Michelle Bernier-Toth, the State Department’s managing director for Overseas Citizen Services. The problem is more of an inconvenience and a monetary cost than a reason to implode. Instead, take solace in the fact that it happens all the time and is considered one of the most common problems for U.S. travelers abroad.
If you’ve misplaced your passport or are the victim of theft, you’ll need to keep a clear head and jump into action right away. The first step will be to figure out where the nearest U.S. Embassy or consulate is. It doesn’t hurt to call ahead and let officials know your situation. Check the time before you head in to solve your travel nightmare; many embassies and consulates can’t issue emergency passports after-hours or on the weekend.
Once you’re in, report your missing passport to the consular section.
“We can make sure you can get through the door in time. Make sure that you have the documents you need to apply for the new passport,” Bernier-Toth says. “When you come in, if you’re fully prepared, we can take care of you as quickly as possible.”
Make 100% sure that your passport is gone forever before you begin the process — officials are going to cancel your existing passport over the phone, and it will be unusable if you do find it.
Travel writer Ali Wunderman had her passport and a copy in the same bag when she was traveling through Europe as a teenager.
“I was in an almost-empty train station in Barcelona, a simple layover between Valencia and Interlaken in Switzerland, when the bag with my passport, wallet and unsent postcards got nabbed from right under my nose,” Wunderman says. “I was 19 and naive enough to think the Australian girl — the only other person in the train station — would watch my bags instead of taking them, but here we are.”
After an unsuccessful plea to local police for help, Wunderman went to the American consulate with her now-husband, who could vouch for her identity. Her parents did the same over the phone.
“Even though it sucked at the time, I learned a lot about being vigilant while traveling, as well as how to be resourceful when it seems like everything has fallen apart,” Wunderman says. “You have to be calm, ask for help and, most importantly, learn how to avoid that situation in the future.”
Wunderman now travels with multiple hard copies of her passport, along with a digital version saved on her phone, which is exactly what the experts recommend. Keeping several copies in different places — one on yourself, one in your luggage and one in the hotel — can also help. But although having different forms of photo identification can expedite the process, don’t worry if you find yourself without any. Officials will be able to look you up in the system either way.
At the embassy or consulate, you’ll need to fill out forms and pay fees. If you’ve been a victim of a violent crime or disaster, the fee for your emergency passport may be waived; otherwise, you’ll be charged the same as you would at home (about $145 to $200 for the emergency passport and fees in most cases).
“We do charge the full amount,” Bernier-Toth said. “Then, the person can bring that emergency passport back to the United States and swap it out for a full-validity passport.” That means that while your emergency passport is only temporarily valid, you can exchange it for a standard one without additional charges once you’re home.
There are limitless things that can go wrong when you’re traveling. Losing your passport is a bureaucratic obstacle, but not the most devastating tragedy. Don’t let a passport setback ruin the rest of your trip.
“Bad things happen when we’re home and when we travel,” Wunderman said. “All that matters is that we grow from whatever we experience.”