On June 6, an Australian tourist traveling to a friend’s wedding experienced a travel nightmare: He was denied entry to Indonesia due to an unforeseen passport issue. The problem was not one of visa status or expiration date; rather, Matt Vandenberg was sent back from whence he came because of a small tear on one page of his passport.
Vandenberg took to Twitter to share his experience, which started in Sydney where his passport was scanned without incident. A six-hour Jetstar flight to Denpasar, a common destination airport for travelers heading to Bali, followed with no trouble to report. When it came time to receive his passport stamp and enter Indonesia, however, an official spotted an approximately 1-centimeter rip (“I had no idea until he bent it all the way back, and it stood out,” Vandenberg said) and told him that he would not be allowed to enter the country. His passport was then confiscated until he could return to Australia 12 hours later.
Despite the many bells and whistles present on modern passports worldwide, passports are still made of paper and, as such, are susceptible to damage. A damaged passport, depending on the circumstances, can be as detrimental to your travel plans as an expired one. If the wrong immigration official spots the wrong thing, as in Vandenberg’s case, your trip may be toast. The rules—namely, what constitutes significant damage—vary from country to country, which accounts for the difference in Vandenberg’s treatment in Australia versus Indonesia (home to some of the strictest passport damage laws in the world). The only solution, really, is to replace the passport, and there’s no special treatment, either. No matter what freak accident you may encounter, expect to get in line with everybody else.
The US State Department notes damage that will require a replacement as “water damage, a significant tear, unofficial markings on the data page, missing visa pages (torn out), a hole punch, or other injuries,” while also flagging that “wear and tear” such as bending and fanning are not to be worried about. But the subjectivity of those rules (what qualifies as a “significant tear”?) may be difficult to parse. To get a better grasp on passport damage, and what to do about it, we turned to an expert.
How can a passport sustain damage?
Ilya Buravstov of Generations Visa Service has seen it all when it comes to passport damage. The risk of damage begins just after a passport’s creation–while in transit to its owner: Buravstov has seen cases of packages falling off the truck and getting trampled in traffic. Damage may be invisible–excessive exposure to sunlight could fry that chip embedded in the cover, making it un-scannable in a foreign destination.
Most common is water damage—new passports getting left out in the rain in flimsy envelopes, liquid spills, passports supposedly safely stored away ruined by storm floods, the list goes on. The State Department allows for bending sustained by a passport being kept in a back pocket, but if those pants still harbor the document when they go through the laundry, your luck’s washed out.
Not every instance of passport damage is completely innocent, either. If you think you can alter your passport on your own, you are gravely mistaken. “I’ve seen people who travel a lot think they can make some room in their passport, that they can peel out the full-page visas that you get from China or Egypt, or lift stamps from the page to make way for more,” Buravstov says. “Once that’s done, you’ve mutilated your own passport, that constitutes damage, and they can tell because there will still be a mark.”
Another no-no that may seem obvious? Never cut or rip out pages from your passport to send to a concierge service. “We need the whole passport if we are helping you get a visa, but we’ve received just the first few pages torn out in envelopes because a person didn’t want to send the whole thing,” Buravstov says. Know that there is no taping a page back in once it is out. Peeling laminate and souvenir stamps have also gotten passport holders turned away from their travel desks on the grounds of damage, the airline being Qatar Airways in both of these cases.
Dogs, by the way, eat passports. Buravstov has seen it, and so has Traveler senior editor Megan Spurrell. Spurrell and her partner, Henry Urrunaga, were visiting Spurrell’s mother when the family golden retriever made a meal out of Urrunaga’s Peruvian passport. Spurrell recalls, “We’d gone out for the day, and when we got back the door to our room was open, and I saw what looked like this little red piece of garbage on the floor. I picked it up and saw that it was actually Henry’s passport—all that remained was the golden emblem in the center. The dog ate perfectly around it.”
What can you do if your passport gets damaged?
Because Spurrell and Urrunaga were traveling domestically, they were able to make their flight without Urrunaga’s photo ID. In such cases, allow ample time and make your way to your airline’s ticket desk. Fill them in on what happened—Spurrell notes that officials were largely unamused by the novelty—and prepare to submit to some questioning in order to verify your identity. (The TSA says that these exceptions to presenting a photo ID will no longer be made on domestic flights once new Real ID rules go into effect in May 2025.)
Otherwise, Buravstov notes that the options are limited–the main takeaway should be that you are not going to be able to sew your passport back together again, that a damaged passport must be replaced. Vandenberg’s case was special—he was not turned away at the airport in Australia and instead made it all the way to his destination before encountering an issue, and he was able to secure an emergency passport upon his return to Australia (weep not, he made the wedding!). If the damage is minor and the timing tight, you may be inclined to risk it. But even if you are just a few days out from your flight and find yourself with a damaged passport, you can still get a new passport fast.
Getting an appointment for an emergency passport replacement stateside is no easy feat—there are just 26 Regional Passport Offices across the country. As commerce editor Madison Flager details in her piece about rescuing her own passport from renewal purgatory, one can start calling for appointments five business days out from travel. Be prepared to go far if the situation is dire—New York-based Flager was offered in-person appointments in Honolulu and San Juan before settling for D.C.–but this is really the only way to secure a new passport day of.
If you have time on your side and are willing to put some money into the endeavor, turn to a concierge service that can help attain a new passport quickly, but be prepared to pay. Gen Visa’s fastest option, five to seven business days, runs $499 plus shipping and a $190 government fee. If the passport becomes damaged when you don’t have travel on the horizon, you can always take the normal route of applying for a passport renewal.
How to protect your passport from damage
Keep it dry and contained, always. A plastic bag will do the trick, but you can always dress it up with a passport holder or wallet. Even if it’s leatherbound, keep it in a zippered pocket so that it can’t fall into a puddle or a fire or a pet’s mouth. Don’t fiddle anxiously with it in the customs line, don’t rip anything out of it, and never alter it of your own accord.
Source: CNT Condé Nast Traveller