I recently found myself in quite a tricky situation when I noticed I had some slight damage to my passport when in Bali. I was due to fly to Vietnam to meet J a few weeks later, and left in quite an unknown situation. Subsequently, I feel like I’ve become a bit of an expert on damaged travel documents and we thought it would be helpful to share this this in case anyone else finds themselves in a similar situation. Read out to find out what is a damaged passport and why is damaging your travel document such an issue.
What is a damaged passport?
If you look at the British Government definition of a damaged passport, it is quite narrow. It suggests that a damaged document is limited to anything that prevents the name or biographical details on the passport from being visible, significant damage to the photo page (suggesting that the document has been tampered with) or if the electronic passport chip has been damaged. But the problem is, the definitions are different depending on the country you travel to. Many countries don’t have an official definition in fact. Many will treat a small amount of wear and tear as damage.
In terms of why damage to a passport is important. There are a few reasons. Firstly, not all countries have the same definition of damage. Some immigration authorities will allow you entry or exit with a passport with some minor wear and tear or some damage. For example, I know somebody who travelled into the USA and the UK with a passport that had been (quite visibly) damaged in a washing machine. In contrast, many countries will simply not allow you to enter with any damage to your passport at all.
What might happen if you travel with a damaged passport?
Airlines may deny boarding, there are numerous examples of this happening, especially as some countries now have zero tolerance policies around damage to passport. Vietnam is one, Jordan is another, and there are many other countries following suit.
If you are able to fly, but you arrive in a country that has a zero tolerance policy for passport damage, then you will not be able to enter the country. If this happens, you will be told, in not too uncertain words, to get back on a plane and go back to your original destination. This will be at your own cost.
Finally, one further risk, is that any damage to your passport will be seized upon by corrupt immigration officers. I know this might sound extreme, but there are many stories about this happening. There’s even an example of a celebrity being asked for a bribe at an Indonesian airport so that they would turn a blind eye to his damaged document. When I started researchig this, it became quite clear that corruption, specifically in relation to damaged passports, can be quite prevalent. Clearly, this is not a situation anyone would want to be in. But it is a risk if you try to travel with a damaged passport.
Indeed, this is one of the reasons that some immigration authorities now have zero tolerance for any damage to documents. This policy prevents corrupt officers from seeking to exploit vulnerable travellers for bribes.
Can I travel with a damaged passport?
In theory, it may be possible to travel with a slightly damaged passport. Many countries may accept minor damage if it does not compromise the integrity of the passport. But, this is not always the case. There are some significant risks if you do travel with a damaged passport such as being denied boarding, denied entry, being forced to return to your point of departure or being put into a tricky position by corrupt immigration officers.
Does travel insurance help if you damage your passport?
Something many people may not realise, I certainly didn’t, is that if your passport is lost, damaged or stolen, travel insurance can rarely help you. There may be some specific instances where it can, for example, if your handbag was stolen and you incurred costs to replace your passport (I’m not an expert, but I think insurance would pay out in this instance to cover the costs of replacing your document.)
However, most travel insurance clauses state very clearly that it is your responsibility to ensure that you have appropriate documents to travel. Therefore, if you have a damaged document and you are denied boarding, you are on your own financially. A damaged passport could leave you with a significant bill.
What to do if your passport is damaged when you are overseas?
Based on my own experience, I would say that the first thing to do is check the government official guidance around passport damage. If you feel that the passport is significantly damaged, contact the Embassy for your home country in your travel destination. They will be able to advise on your best option.
If you have time before travelling, you can normally obtain an emergency passport within 48 hours of application. But do note that you will have to attend an appointment at the relevant embassy at least once to collect the document and possibly once more for an interview. If you are simply travelling back directly to your home country from your travel destination and you can get an emergency travel document issued, then things should be fairly straight forward from there.
What is an emergency passport?
It might surprise you to learn that if your passport is damaged, lost or stolen overseas, it’s extremely unlikely that you can just get it replaced with a full passport, unless you have sufficient time in your destination to do so. For example, passport replacements for British citizens overseas currently take 10 weeks.
Instead, your embassy is likely to issue you with an Emergency Passport or an Emergency Travel Document (ETD). Unfortunately, this is the not the direct equivalent of a full passport. ETD’s are actually quite restricted. They are timebound and restrict you to travelling to specific countries for which you have existing travel plans.
Firstly, they will specify which countries you can travel to using the document. Secondly, they have a very short expiry time – most will be issued with just over 6 months before expiry. Thirdly, they will not have a chip, meaning that you can’t use the electronic passport gates. They also tend to only have around 6 blank pages for visas and stamps.
However, the aspect of an ETD that is most restrictive, is that not all countries will accept them. Even if your embassy issues a passport stating that you can go to Thailand (for example), the immigration authorities in Thailand will not allow you to enter with an ETD.
Can I travel on an emergency passport?
The answer to this very much depends on the country you are travelling to. If you are in doubt, seek immediate guidance from your Embassy. Although, as I learned, there are grey areas. For example, Indonesia officially does not accept ETDs, but there are examples of people using them.
Depending on your circumstances, you will want to check the guidance on:
- Remaining in a country with an ETD
- Impact on your visa with an ETD
- Getting out of the country with an ETD
- Boarding a flight with an ETD
- Entering a country with an ETD
Airline refusal to board with an ETD
The other challenge is around airlines. Upon trying to board a VietJet flight from Vietnam to Singapore, I was initially denied boarding with my ETD (despite having flown into Vietnam with the same airline) from Bali. The airline were concerned that I would not be allowed to travel to Singapore and subsequently that they would face a hefty fine for allowing me to board. Apparently, this happens fairly frequently. Airlines are fined by the inbound immigration authority for boarding passengers with incorrect documents.
In the end, I was made to sign a liability form (legality of which may be questionable) stating that I would reimburse the airline to the tune of any legal costs, should I become unstuck with immigration in Singapore. As it happened, I was fine. But I only felt comfortable signing this document because I had quite clear guidance from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Department (FCDO) that I would be able to enter Singapore.
If you do get denied boarding, make sure you understand your rights as a consumer, but also that you understand the guidance about entering your destination country.
Visas and Emergency Travel Documents
The other big consideration you will have when travelling with an ETD is visas. If you’re required to get a visa to enter a country, you may not be allowed to get one with an ETD. Even if your passport is legally valid, you may therefore still not be able to travel. Seek guidance on this as much as possible.
If you already have an active visa in your damaged passport and this is still visible, your passport number is readble an you have your damaged passport, then many countries will still accept this visa as valid and your ETD. However, not all of them will have the same policy.
Your best port of call will be speaking to the nearest embassy for the country you are travelling to. For example, when I was in Bali seeking to travel to Vietnam, the British embassy in Bali were not able to give me advice about my visa to enter Vietnam, nor were the FCDO. I also received some incorrect guidance from the Vietnamese embassy in London, but ultimately had the best luck in speaking to the Vietnamese embassy in Jakarta.
If you do travel on an ETD…..
My best advice is to allow plenty of time at airports. Even the most slick airport and immigration authorities are not completely familiar with ETDs. This tends to lead to frequent delays at check in and passport control.
Finally, seek as much advice as possible before you travel with an ETD or a damaged passport.
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