Oh, the places your passport can take you. That is, if you keep it safe and protected. Here are a few passport safety tips for your next trip abroad, including how to protect your passport, avoid passport scams and what steps you should take before you leave home in case your passport is stolen.
Our passports are the most important thing we have with us when we travel. So how do we we keep our passports safe during all our travels, even to a wide range of countries with varying levels of safety and police corruption?
Read on for our top passport safety tips for traveling abroad, including what you should do before you travel and how to keep your passport safe and avoid scams when you are on your trip. It really doesn't take a lot of work or expense to take these few steps towards passport safety and peace of mind when you travel abroad.
Update August 2018: After a run-in with some police at a road stop in the Comoros Islands we've updated the article with a few more passport safety and general travel tips connected.
For more travel safety tips read: Stay Open, Stay Safe: 5 Unconventional Safety Tips
How to Protect Your Passport When Traveling Abroad
1. Use a passport cover
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.
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.”
2. Keep your passport in a RFID blocking sleeve or cover
Using a RFID blocking sleeve for our passports is something that we've started doing the last few years as hacker technology has improved. Same goes for protecting your debit and credit cards. It's just better not to take any risks.
And, the RFID blocking sleeve also serves the purpose of providing an additional level of physical protection for the passport.
The RFID blocking passport and credit card sleeves we use came with our Clothing Arts Adventure Travel Pants. However, it's inexpensive and easy to buy a set of RFID blocking sleeves for passports and credit cards or to buy a passport cover that already includes RFID blocking technology.
3. Make a laminated, wallet-sized copy of the main page of your passport.
This is our top passport safety tip. Think of this as the updated version of “carry a photocopy of your passport.” And it's easy to make at the neighborhood copy shop.
While it’s necessary to hand over your actual passport to a border guard or immigration officer, there are countless other situations (e.g., hotel desks, credit card ID, local transport booking) that may require nothing more than something with your name, photo, and passport number on it.
That's where a credit card-sized laminated photocopied version of the front page of your passport that fits easily in your wallet comes in handy. And, it won't disintegrate as rapidly as a regular paper photocopy. You'll be surprised how often this official, yet not-at-all-official, piece of plastic works. Even with local police who might be looking for a bribe.
And here's the big advantage of this laminated passport copy — it's one more opportunity to keep your passport in your money belt (or wherever you happen to store it), locked away at the hotel, and one less opportunity to accidentally leave it somewhere. Be sure to keep the copy handy (we keep ours in our passport), but away from your passport original.
Note for U.S. citizens: It's also possible to apply for a U.S. Passport Card that is essentially an official version of the laminated copy. The cost is $65 for 10 years, the same length of time as your passport. It can also be used as an official identification if you are traveling to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.
4. Keep an electronic copy of the visa to the country you're traveling in on your phone.
Every time you enter a new country take a photo of your visa from that country and keep it handy on your phone. This will show the date you entered, the date the visa expires, and that you are in the country legally.
This was one that we learned on a recent trip to the Comoros Islands. Not only did the police during a road stop in a random village want to see our passports (and we used our laminated passport copies for that), but they also wanted to see our visa for the Comoros Islands.
The supposed reason they gave: to be sure we hadn't overstayed our visa and were in the country illegally. The real reason is that the police were looking for another reason to fine us (i.e., get a bribe).
We managed to talk our way out of that situation without paying any bribes. Our driver was very impressed, calling all police in the Comoros Islands “Voleurs!” or “Thieves!” However, we learned the lesson to keep a photo of our visa on our phone just to avoid giving police any excuse to harass you.
Alternatively, you can make a photocopy of the visa and carry that with you.
5. Mind your passport.
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 or locked 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.
How to Handle Passport Scams and Corrupt 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.
Use one or a combination of the strategies below to talk your way out of passport scams or police looking for bribes.
1. Pretend not to speak the local language.
Even if I do speak the local language, I usually 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.
2. Hand over a passport copy only.
If the official-looking person you've been approached by insists on seeing some sort of documentation hand over a passport copy – the laminated passport copy is better than a photocopy as it somehow looks more official — 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.
3. 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, the soldiers were happy that our paperwork was in order, and then invited us to view the ancient fort where their border station was located.
4. Call hotel where you are staying or your local host.
This usually works better if you're staying in a smaller guesthouse or using Airbnb (or similar) since your host will likely know and remember you. The idea is for you to explain to your host what is happening and get advice from a person who knows the local context well and can recommend what you should do next.
Alternatively, ask the police to talk with your host so that your host can possibly explain your situation better in the local language.
This means that you should try to always get the phone number of your host or keep a business card from the hotel with you.
5. Best behaviors for dealing with questions about your passport
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.
Passport Safety Tips for 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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.)
Or, if there is a serious emergency (e.g., you've gone missing) and someone needs to get in touch with your country's embassy where you are traveling this is an easy way to send all relevant and important details at once.
4. For U.S. citizens, enroll in the STEP by the State Department
STEP (or Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) is a free service that allows American citizens to enroll with U.S. embassies and consulates where they are traveling. One benefits is that since all of your passport information is already entered, STEP is supposed to make it faster for embassies to issue an emergency passport if yours gets lost or stolen.
In addition, if there is a natural disaster or terrorist event then you will receive security updates and information on what you should do. If there is an evacuation for some reason this will help the embassy communicate with you and what you need to do. Additionally, if a family member or friend needs to get in touch with you then the embassy will more easily be able to relay messages to you.
OK travel folks, do you have any passport tips to share? What about passport disaster stories?