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?
Protect Your Passport
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Article Series - Passport Stories
- My Big Fat American Passport
- Protect Thy Passport