Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Know your passport, Mr Armstrong

Last night, Mills had a little mini-rant (mini, in comparison to the rage he flies into about hippies and Australian and Australian hippies), about a tweet that he saw from Lance Armstrong: "Well, made it in to SA. Not the friendliest welcome I've ever received but we've all seen immigration officers like that."

You see, Lance's passport was full so there was nowhere for the SA official to stamp on his entry. Apparently you are supposed to have at least two blank pages when entering SA, and I think this stands for several other countries too. Yes, it does feel that some of these regulations are in place simply to inconvenience us (me) personally. Yes Lance, we've all had our experience with pain-in-the-ass immigration officers. Trust me... every single bloody time I take a step to the left or the right. But it's highly unlikely that any passport official in any country would let it slide. Can you imagine? Sitting with their little dated stamp ready to whack down on any available spot, licking their lips in anticipation of their important step in your commute... until they realise that there is nowhere to stamp....

"Oh I give up," says the passport official with a wink and a smile as he hands back the unmarked pamphlet, in this hypothetical and completely-unrealistic situation, "so we'll just let you through this one time. We all know that passports are just another means of intergovernmental control anyway, ensuring that you will never find out who really instigated the 9/11 bombings and caused global warming. Have a nice day now!"

Not. Likely.

The fact is, annoying or not, your passport is full. It is not something that has a little monitor that beeps at you when you are starting to reach maximum capacity. It is something that you should consciously be aware of. As much as I hate airports, I love travelling, and I have to take responsibility for my travel documents. Even the almighty Lance Armstrong, be he a god in so many other fields, still has to assume mere mortal status and go through border control just like the rest of us bleeting sheep. As such, he or (if he really is far too busy and above checking his own documents) his PA or manager perpetrated a major oversight by not being aware that his passport is running out. This is not the fault of the poor bloody (admittedly bureaucratic because it's his bloody job) passport official. Incompetent he was not. He was just doing a shitty, shitty job and it was made all the worse because he had to do it to someone who is held in such infallible high esteem. Sucks to be you, dude.

Unlike people with an EU/GB or US passports, who often take visa-less entry for granted, I have the unenviable privilege of proving residence, gainful employment, liquidity and health clearance on an all too regular basis. With the various visas and permits ranging from EU to UK to US approval, the pages in my passport are worth at least R15,000 easily. Never mind the time, sweat, blood and tears that have gone into acquiring permission for each of those precious documents.

On our recent trip to SA, I realised that I only have five blank pages remaining in my passport. The rest are full. Choc-a-blok. Considering that I've only had it for four years, the chances are very likely that my passport is going to fill up before the expiration date in 2016 and I'm guessing that there will not be a public outcry on my behalf when I am informed that entry is denied due to lack of stamping space. So, despite six years remaining, I have already put in an application for a passport renewal. Not just any renewal, I've asked for a maxi-pad, I mean maxi-passport. 64 pages, baby.

If anything, I have learnt to play embassies and consulates at their own game. I have a visa folder. It includes, but is not limited to:

Passports (old and current, relevant pages copied);
Dutch residence permit (in original and both sides copied);
South African ID book (and copy);
Unabridged birth certificate (certified and copied);
Certificate of non-marriage status (certified and copied, this is apparently important in the Netherlands for some reason);
Police clearance (certified and copied);
Three months of recent bank statements (and copies);
Letter of motivation for why I am applying for passport renewal/more pages in passport/visa for particular country;
Letter from employer indicating gainful and ongoing employment;
Letter from hosts in respective country (if appropriate);
Planned itinerary or booked flights (if appropriate);
At least four bio-metrically accepted ID photos (no teeth showing, no head gear, hair away from face, generally a peculiarly bemused facial expression);
Sometimes this folder will also include a letter from a doctor stating my continued health and (on one occasion) x-rays showing a TB-free set of lungs.
I smile, and have a friendly chat, and then absolutely drown them in paperwork. "... and here are two copies of my ID, here's by birth certificate in copy and original, here's my father's ID number and place of birth, here's my most recent pay slip and a copy for you, here's my contract indicating intention to extend... " Inevitably they don't know what to do with it all, hand it back and tell me my application has been approved.

So the maxi-passport will take up to 20 weeks (I nearly typed "20 years"... it feels about as long). But It's not a straight forward renewal - I've requested that I keep my current passport as it has at least three valid visas. So, I am hopefully going to have a massive passport for my stamp collection, as well as the old passport with the ongoing visas still running in that. I can't wait wait to explain that to passport control.

Maybe I'm too unsympathetic towards people who have no idea about when their passport will expire, or exactly what is required for entry into any given country. Maybe I'm far too aware of my passport, because I travel on third world status. I know that if I need a new visa in my passport I will need at least - at least - one blank double page. Not two pages somewhere in my passport, but two pages directly opposite each other.

I also know that if my passport is expiring within the next few weeks or months, I'm most likely not going to be allowed entry into various countries because they require that your passport run past a certain date after your expected date of return. This little point came as a rude surprise to a British friend who was recently not even allowed to board her plane for Cape Town as her passport expired within three weeks from that date. Here's a tip to any other international travellers to SA... not only do you need to have space to stamp in your passport, but you also need to be aware that it cannot expire within one month of your scheduled return date. They will not even let you on the plane.


rd said...

I hate celebrities and their "Do you know who I am?" speech...
I hope he is involved in a very non-serious accident at Argus where no one gets hurt. No need to be malicious now

Anonymous said...

I am pleased to see your African heart still pumps true African blood!!! We loved seeing you both here.
Amaaaandle indeed Luv, wicked Witch of the North