Uh-Oh, Where's My Passport?

The passport or wallet of even the most organized and experienced traveler can disappear or be stolen in the rush of travel.

U.S. Passport
Image Source | Getty Images
U.S. Passport

In the last fiscal year alone, the State Department reported 253,037 lost passports and 60,984 stolen worldwide. In 2011, there were more than 109 million valid United States passports.

And while the State Department and its counterparts in other countries have procedures for replacing a lost or stolen passport, time zone differences, weekends and holidays can complicate and slow the process.

Chris Crowley, 44, who is British and has been traveling the globe for 15 years, lost and found his passport over two days on a business trip two years ago that took him from London to Singapore, Chicago, Washington and back to London.

Mr. Crowley said that on the flight from Chicago to Washington on Continental Airlines (now United Airlines) he had put his passport in the seat back pocket in front of him. “I was in a hurry, fell asleep and got off the plane in Washington without it,” Mr. Crowley said.

Mr. Crowley, who is senior vice president for global client management for Europe, the Middle East and Africa for BCD Travel, said he has two British passports in case he has to travel abroad while one passport was elsewhere, for example at the British Embassy if he was seeking a visa for China or Russia.

(American citizens can obtain a second passport, but that is considered an exception and decided on a case-by-case basis, State Department officials said.)

Mr. Crowley had arrived in Washington on a Tuesday night at 8 and was scheduled to depart on Thursday for London. First, he called the airline to report the loss. Then he called the British Embassy in Washington. “It was after 5 so I reached the automated system,” he said. Next, he called a number at the British passport office in London. “The automated message said to call the local embassy. It was circular.”

Short on time, Mr. Crowley called his assistant in London, who keeps information about his passport and his credit cards. She drove three hours to his mother’s house to get the key to his apartment in London to pick up his spare passport, which she then sent by overnight mail to Mr. Crowley’s hotel in Washington.

That Thursday, before he was scheduled to travel, Continental Airlines called Mr. Crowley, saying the cleaning staff had found his passport in an airplane in Minneapolis. “Thursday morning I had two passports,” said Mr. Crowley, who is also chairman of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives Center.

For Americans traveling abroad, the best thing to do is report a missing passport as quickly as possible, especially if they are sure that it is lost, said Kenneth Durkin, director of American Citizen Services and Crisis Management at the State Department. “First, retrace your steps. If you’re convinced that it’s been lost or stolen, file a police report, which is highly helpful in getting it replaced. Report the loss as soon as possible so that it is not misused for illicit travel or sold or doctored.”

Most global companies have travel assistance services for their employees who travel frequently. “It’s built into their insurance policies,” said Bruce Kirby, president of the US Travel Insurance Association. “You’ve got the connection back home to kind of walk you through. They can give you the contact information for the credit card companies and direct you to the embassy and wire money to you.” Or the embassy can call the assistance program when you arrive.

Getting home without a passport is almost impossible, yet an employer is “still ultimately responsible for that individual traveler,” said Charles Brossman, director of global safety and security products for Carlson Wagonlit Travel, which helps companies and governments with their travel programs.

He said that most global companies had a travel program with a crisis response hot line that can help with a lost or stolen passport. Corporate travelers can also call a travel emergency hot line to change their flight home if obtaining a replacement passport takes longer than expected.

Ways to prevent loss of passports.

Travel experts suggested several ways to prevent the loss of passports, wallets and credit cards while traveling overseas on business and trips, and for getting replacements:

¶ Leave a photocopy of all your documents and credit cards you will carry abroad with a spouse, assistant or other trusted person.

¶ Bring a color photocopy of the “face” page of your passport with you as a photo identification, and consider memorizing the passport number.

¶ When going through airport security, carry the passport and boarding pass with you.

¶ Check at travel.state.gov if the countries you are traveling to require you to carry your passport with you at all times or if the photocopy will suffice. Some experts suggested leaving the passport in the hotel safe.

¶ If your passport is lost or stolen, file a police report and bring it and a photocopy of your passport with you to streamline the issuing of a replacement passport at the United States Embassy or consulate overseas.

¶ Tell the security guard at the embassy or consulate that you are an American citizen who has lost your passport, and show the photocopy of the passport and police report.

This State Department app, available at iTunes, provides country-specific conditions as well as contact information for embassies and consulates. After business hours, travelers can report the loss of their passports online at travel.state.gov.

But a State Department official said travelers should still go to the local embassy or consulate the next day to start the process of obtaining an emergency photo-digitized passport, which can take 24 to 48 hours and is usually valid for up to a year. The cost is $135, though travelers can turn in that emergency passport when they return home and get a passport good for 10 years at no additional cost. Overseas travelers who can wait four to six weeks can apply for a regular passport that is good for 10 years. The cost is also $135.

Travelers should know the resources available through their employer and whom to contact within the company and its travel management company.

Travelers with an American Express credit card of almost any type can use the global assistance program that comes with it. “You can call them and they will help you sort it out: your lost driver’s license, passport, your corporate card,” said Janey Whiteside, senior vice president for global corporate payments at American Express.

Marty Peninger, 53, an accounts manager with Heidelberg USA, said he lost his passport, credit cards and money, all in one wallet, in Düsseldorf, Germany, in May while at a trade show. He said he spoke to his company’s legal counsel in the United States, took a 90-minute train trip to the United States Consulate in Frankfurt and spent the day getting an emergency passport as well as an extra night in Germany before heading home.

His advice to other travelers in the same situation? “Figure out what you are going to do and do everything you can.”