Protect Thy Passport

Oh, the places your passport can take you. That is, if you keep it safe and protected. Here are a few tips on protecting your passport, avoiding passport scams and what steps you should take before you leave home in case your passport is stolen.

How did you manage to get three extra sets of pages in your passport?” I’ve been asked several times since writing about my chubby passport. It helped that the consul was flexible. But more importantly, my passport was in good condition.

How do I do it?

How to Protect Your Passport

Cover it.

Not only does a cover keep your passport in good shape, but a passport cover from another country can be used to keep things low key and to keep people guessing.

Passport Covers
We’ve already exhausted a couple of passport covers. Better the cover than the actual passport.

My passport cover is from the Czech Republic; Dan’s is from Turkmenistan.

Confusion can also be fun. On several occasions, we’ve been complimented on our language skills as we’ve waited in passport lines.

You are from Turkmenistan?! But your English is so good.

Make a laminated, wallet-sized copy of the main page of your passport.

While it’s necessary to hand over your actual passport to a border guard, countless other situations (e.g., hotel desks, credit card ID, local transport booking) may require nothing more than something with your name and passport number on it.

A credit card-sized laminated photocopied version of the front page of your passport fits easily in your wallet and won’t disintegrate as rapidly as a regular photocopy. You’ll be surprised how often this official, yet not-at-all-official, piece of plastic works.

Laminated Passport Copy
About the size of a credit card.

And the big one — it’s one more opportunity to keep your passport in your money belt (or wherever you happen to store it) and one less opportunity to accidentally leave it somewhere. Be sure to keep the copy handy, but away from your passport original.

Mind it.

If you’re at home, keep your passport in a secure, dry place. (And no, running your passport through the laundry does not qualify as “minding it.”)

On the road, keep it in your money belt or some other place that is zipped up, out of sight and hard to get to.

The worst place to keep your passport? Stuffed in the back pocket of your jeans or an exposed pocket of your backpack. It screams, “Please lose me!” or “Please steal me!

We’re astounded by how often we see this on the road.

Passport Scams: Corrupt and Fake Police

Although you will likely be humbled many times by the kindness of strangers when you travel, the truth is that not everyone you meet has your best interests in mind. Corrupt and fake police officers trying to separate you from your passport and money are a reality in some parts of the world.

(Note: We shared this information with an earnest German guy recently and he was just shocked that this could happen. “Really? But they are police. They are there to protect you,” he repeated. In an ideal world, perhaps. But this is the real world where it’s better to be safe than sorry.)

If someone who appears to be official (i.e., in a police uniform or some other official-looking outfit) stops you on the street for no reason and asks for your passport, do whatever you can to not to hand it over.

Drinking with the Police - Svaneti, Georgia
Not all police are as friendly as these officers from Svaneti, Georgia.

Pretend not to speak the local language.

Even if I do speak the local language, I pretend not to and I play stupid if the situation warrants it. If you are indeed facing a fake cop, “Huh? I don’t understand” in loud, annoying English with shoulder shrugs will cause frustration. The reaction to this will help you further sort out whether you’re dealing with a real police officer or a fake.

Our Experience: In the Tashkent (Uzbekistan) metro, we were stopped by a policeman who asked for our documents. I pretended not to understand Russian. I spoke English and added a “dumb blonde” head bob. Instead of pressing, the policeman apologized for disturbing us and went on his way.

Was his intent malicious? Who knows, but my approach helped sort his transaction with me to the bottom of the pile.

Hand over a passport copy only.

If the official-looking person you’ve been approached by insists on seeing some sort of documentation — and you are indeed convinced that they are authentic — consider handing over a passport copy and explain that your passport is back at your hotel.

Why? Two reasons.

1. Fake police officers: Scam police officers – people dressed in a police uniform – are common in some parts of the world. Once your real passport is in scammers’ hands, they may play you further and extort money from you in order to give it back.

Our Experience: When we were in Cochabamba, Bolivia looking for the police station (to report a stolen phone), a concerned police officer gave us a long lecture about fake policeman roaming the streets asking tourists for their passports and then extorting money. It’s never happened to us, but we know other travelers who’ve fallen prey to this scam.

2. Corrupt police officers

Another unfortunate reality is that corrupt police officers can play a game similar to the one played by fake police officers. Once a corrupt officer has your passport, he can use his authority to intimidate you and ask for money to return your passport.

Lonely Planet Central Asia used to burst with stories of corrupt police playing games like this. While we didn’t have any problems during our travels in the region, we spoke to a few travelers who did. Single guys be on alert here — it seems as if corrupt police especially enjoyed targeting solo male travelers to solo females or couples.

Do not pull out your passport until you are in a public place and feel absolutely safe.
The truth is that if you encounter a real police officer with a real reason to see your passport, he shouldn’t have a problem taking you to a nearby police station and walking with you to your hotel to retrieve it. In both locations, if you can manage it, pull your passport out only when you are in sight of a group of people. There is safety in numbers.

Our Experience: In the Pamir Mountains on the Tajik-Afghan border, a group of armed Tajik soldiers ran at us and asked for our documents. I lied straight through my teeth in my best Russian that our passports were in our jeep. In truth, our passports were in our money belts around our waists. But I didn’t feel comfortable pulling them out because our driver couldn’t see us. So we returned to our jeep, out in the open. Once we got there, we pretended to shuffle through our bags to “find” our documents. Then we showed them to the soldiers as our driver looked on.

Khakha Qala Fort - Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan
At the Tajik-Afghan border, taking a tour with a gun-toting soldier — after showing him our passports.

Passport Good Behavior
The key: don’t instantly crumble to intimidation. Hold your ground. If you are dealing with a fake cop or a corrupt one, he will usually leave you alone once he realizes you are not a pushover when it comes to your passport.

If the request for your passport is a legitimate one from a legitimate officer, he should be OK with waiting at your hotel, your jeep or some other safe place to see your documents.

Backing Up Your Passport Before you Leave Home

Sometimes, no matter what you do sh*t happens and your passport disappears. Losing a passport or having one stolen is terrible and inconvenient, but there are a few things you can do before you leave home to expedite the passport replacement process. In this case, the objective is to quickly and easily prove your identity so you can obtain a new passport at the local embassy.

Keep a scanned version of your passport online.

Scan the first page with your name, passport number and all important information. You should be able to access this from anywhere in the world as long as you have an internet connection. For example, the scan could be in your DropBox account or Google Docs or in your online email account. Be sure to include key long-term visas in case you wish to re-apply for or replace those.

Tuck a paper photocopy of your passport away in your main backpack.

Just in case internet access isn’t so reliable where your passport disappears.

Leave a scanned version of your passport with someone you trust.

Although #1 should be sufficient, leave a scanned copy of your passport with a trusted person (parents, friend, lawyer — you do trust your lawyer, don’t you?) who can be counted on to respond and act quickly to your call for help. (You know, just in case you get amnesia and forget all the passwords to online accounts.)

——

OK travel folks, do you have any passport tips to share? What about passport disaster stories?

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Comments

  1. says

    This is another amazingly helpful post. Thanks so much for the advice. It must be really hard to stand your ground in these situations.

    I carry a laminated version on my passport ID page beneath the cushion in all my shoes. Haven’t had to use that one yet- thankfully.

  2. says

    @Erik: Corrupt and fake police bank on the fact that you’re going to be intimidated, so it’s important to take a deep breath, stay in a public place and stay cool. I think it helps that usually there are two of us, so we play off each other in these situations.

    Very cool that you keep a laminated copy of your passport under your shoe cushions. Woud have never thought of that!

  3. Nguyen says

    Great tips!

    To expand on your “Do not pull out your passport until you are in a public place and feel absolutely safe.”

    Another tactic I use is to insist on a 3rd party translator/arbiter like your hotel manager/concierge or any other local merchant you might frequent that may recognize you. They can help confirm whether the requests being made by the police are reasonable and common local norms.

    I always make it a point to try and introduce myself to the hotel manager and grab their business card in case I find myself in a pickle.

  4. says

    @Nguyen: Keeping a business card of the hotel and having a local to who will come to your defense is a great idea. Being able to call someone to back you up when you’re in a pickle is a great relief. We try to keep conversations like this in public and incorporate shop keepers or other people around to help out.

    Thanks for sharing this!

    @Henry: Not sure. Perhaps we’ll have to continue the series with something about Dan’s passport :)

    @Jordan: Thanks – glad these tips were helpful! Now, just renew your passport and get out there!

  5. Kathie Spear says

    I thought it would be best to carry a copy of your passport when you are out touring and leave the passport in your in-room safe. But lately I’ve been reading that the safes aren’t really that safe. Do you think it would be better to always carry it with you?

  6. says

    @Kathie: You ask a really good question, one with no black and white answer. If you are traveling in an area with a high level of safety and you trust the hotel where you’re staying (i.e, you don’t think the staff will go through your stuff), then you can leave it locked up in the safe or in your bag. I think in most major hotel chains this is the case.

    However, if you are in a budget place where your gut tells you to be on your guard then put it in a money belt and take it with you.

    Most of our travel is in developing and transitional countries and we stay in budget accommodation. Because of this, we almost always carry our passport with us in our money belts at all time. We just feel more secure this way.

  7. says

    @Laura: Glad you enjoyed this passport cover tip! Not only are they practical, but different passport covers from other countries are always a fun source of conversations.

  8. says

    Was that a barb at me? Yes, I did send it through the laundry, and no, I’m not proud. But it did fine in the laundry, fwiw. And I also like the covers from other countries, good idea!

  9. says

    @Eileen: I did think of you when I wrote about putting one’s passport through the laundry, but you’re definitely not the only person I met who has done that. Have seen quite a few, “Oh shit!” realizations at hostels. Glad yours survived – not all that I saw were so lucky :)

    Passport covers from other countries can also make good souvenirs – practical and a good memory!

  10. says

    I honestly wasn’t aware of the police scams you mentioned here, so thanks for bringing all of this to my attention. The two of you have such good travel advice ~ thanks for sharing it!

  11. says

    @JoAnna: I remember hearing about similar police scams in Eastern Europe in the 90s, but the first time we really started paying attention to this was in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Fortunately, we’ve never experienced this ourselves but it’s always better to be on guard.

    And thank you for your kind words about our travel advice! Glad it’s useful for others!

  12. says

    some pretty solid advice there! My passport went through the laundry once and it has caused me more than 6 months of headache :(

    Any situation with police anywhere demands that you really stop, take it all in and if anything feels even the slightest bit weird, demand to be taken to the station.

  13. says

    @Will: It may sound odd to ask to be taken to a police station – that sounds like the place you want to avoid – but I agree that if anything seems off in a police situation on the street, that’s what you want.

    Sorry to hear you had so many months of headache with your laundry-cleaned passport. Hope it’s cleared up by now!

  14. says

    Not a tip but a passport story:

    I once flew to the US and had a layover in Copenhagen.

    When I arrived at the gate for my connecting flight, the flight attendant checked my passport and then let me know I couldn’t have it back but I should not worry and enter the plane. She wouldn’t even tell me why.

    I checked with the captain and he assured me my passport was on board but he also wouldn’t give me a reason for this odd treatment. When we arrived in Philly, I was picked up by airport security and they walked me through customs and only gave me back my passport at the airport exit.

    Afterward I called the airline and demanded an explanation and all they could come up with was a rumor of fake Dutch passports and that because I do not look Dutch , they had to take security measures.

    I told them to apologize or I would sue them for racism. I got my apology + 500€ :-)

  15. Modasar says

    Thank you for wonderful details about protecting Passport. I have read the entire page and i loved it! thanks again!!!!

  16. says

    These tips are a big help, no doubt.
    Had trouble with a corrupt police officer in Tanzania once. Took a lot of persuasion from one of my local friends to reduce the amount asked to something reasonable. Not proud of it, but had to pay up.

  17. says

    @Yamile: Thank you for sharing your passport story. You were much more calm than I would have been – I really don’t like it when my passport is out of my control. But, that would have likely made things worse given that you were flying to hyper security United States.

    I’m so glad you did get an official apology and compensation. Good for you!!

    @Modasar: Thank you – glad you enjoyed these passport articles.

    @Kirklops: When someone else has your passport and he wants money, the only thing you really can do is pay up. Really sad, but that’s usually easier and cheaper than going through the process of getting a new one. Glad that your local friends were able to negotiate for you. And, hope that hasn’t happened again!

  18. says

    Excellent advice for protecting your documents!

    I suggest also doing this if you have a youth hostel card, keep a photocopy in your suitcase or backpack and scan it too for online like they are suggesting. I once left my card at a hostel in Amsterdam and was too far away to retrieve it, but the rest of the summer, hostels accepted my photocopy. They saw the information matched my passport and I was able to keep using the photocopy for the next two months without any problems. It saved me.

  19. says

    @Katherine: Thanks for adding this practical advice to have photocopies or scanned versions of all relevant cards, not just one’s passport. It’s good to know that hostels are flexible to accept photocopies instead of demanding the original card.

  20. says

    Do you have an advise for what to do with your passport/money belt when at a beach. I have locked it in my bag at a hotel at times but don’t always trust the hotels. I have locked it up in a motorbike a few times but worry the bike maybe stolen. I have also left it in my stuff on the beach and not let it leave my sight but don’t like that at all.

    Also you said that pages where added more than once. I thought the rule with US passports is you can only have pages added once. Did you get some kind of exception or was what I have told incorrect? I just was down to one blank page on my last passport after having pages added and was concerned I would have to get a new passport while traveling.

  21. says

    @Grumpy: No easy answer here. The best is when you can safely lock it up at your hotel before going to the beach. As we’re two people, we often take turns watching our moneybelts when we’re on the beach. If we’re both in the water, we hide it deep in a bag and keep an eye out. Not ideal, but we also like to swim together sometimes.

    As for extra pages, you are allowed to get up to 4 sets of pages as long as the passport is in good condition. I just received my 3rd set at the Embassy in Berlin and was told that was the final set. But, I just learned of someone who got 4 sets pf pages. Good luck!

  22. says

    hey guys! i’ve been looking all over for a foreign country passport cover like you two have and i have not been able to find one at all! where did you get them??

  23. says

    @Ashley: As you travel around, keep your eyes open in odd places for passport covers. I find that there are usually stands selling document and passport covers outside of post offices in foreign countries.

    I picked up my Czech passport cover at the Vietnamese market in Prague and Dan found his Turkmen cover at the market in Ashgabat. Almost picked up an Iranian passport cover at the post office in Tabriz a few weeks ago, but thought that might not be the best idea…

    Good luck!!

  24. Gus says

    Just a tip here, this one could go either way, remember in places where legitimate govt officials pol/army whatever, are corrupt it can also work to your advantage to speak the local lingo (if you know it) rather than playing stupid, because then they know you’re not just another dumb tourist in their country.

  25. says

    @Gus: Fair point regarding when dealing with government officials overseas. It’s really a judgment call whether one plays it “smart” or “stupid”. It depends on the situation, how you read it, and ultimately playing on both power and sympathies to one’s benefit. True, it could go either way. Thanks for the observation and the comment!

  26. Martin Kosters says

    Great article to keep in mind before you leave. A small thing I like to add: when I’m in a country for a slightly longer period I try to get an ID from the country itself. In many countries this is possible, not expensive and it sometimes might even give you discounts as you’re regarded as a national.

  27. says

    @Martin: That’s a great piece of advice to add to this. Have you been able to get an ID like this even if you’re on a tourist visa? Or is this more of a residency ID?

  28. Martin Kosters says

    Good question. I did this is both India and Canada, though Canada was not really necessary in my opinion. In both countries I was not on a tourist visa, but I’m sure this is not a problem in India. Though it took me a day and a half and about €15 to acquire the driver’s license which is also a valid id there, it was extremely helpful. From then on I left my passport at home, and got discounts for almost every tourist attraction I went to, because they charge less for Indian nationals, which they assume you are as you have their driver’s license. I even boarded a domestic flight with the driver’s license (although I had my passport in my back pocket, in case it was needed anyhow)!

  29. says

    @Martin: Thanks for sharing your experiences getting national IDs in India and Canada. Have heard that it’s also possible in Thailand, but haven’t tried yet. Another option to check out. Thanks!

  30. Gemma says

    I always keep my passport in my bra – I figure if someone tries to take it from my bra, I’ve got bigger problems. I also keep my debit card and money in there, with some spare money in an obvious pocket for bribes/being mugged. I’m thinking about doing this with a cheap pretend passport to put off scammers.

    I have denied my passport to legitimate police that held up our bus in Peru, despite the guns and the bus driver telling me they were real police. I was 18 and had more (over) confidence than fear. They ended up searching my bags and I think I held everyone up by a good hour!

    • says

      Gemma, good place to keep your passport. As you said, if someone does try to take it from there then you probably have bigger problems. As my passport is almost 100 pages, not sure mind would fit without looking too outrageous :) Like you, I keep small bills or coins in an obvious wallet/place so that if someone does rob me they take that first.

      Interesting story about the police check in Peru. Would you do it again now? Or would you hand over your passport?

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