Tips, Tricks, and Hacks for How To Keep Your Passport Safe When Traveling.
Passport battle scars are awesome – until you’re detained for questioning. By the spring of 2011, my little blue book was a work-in-progress. After the magnitude 9.1 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, I was ushered into a small, blank room upon landing in South Korea, and told that I’d have to return to Japan because of my passport’s dilapidated state.
Its pages were well-stamped and vaguely waterlogged. It had threadbare edges, and the golden ghost of an eagle on the front cover. The original navy color had brightened as it faded to denim blue. But the kicker was a healthy rip along its spine that invited closer inspection and a broad black X left inside by a particularly pen-happy immigration officer in the UK. Up until a moment before, all of this had been an immense source of pride.
At the time the details of the disaster weren’t clear. I knew there had been explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The world didn’t yet know that three reactor cores had melted down. Nonetheless, my assessment was simple:
Situation = bad.
It’s very unlikely that you’ll be close to a disaster of any kind while traveling, but you should know how to keep your passport safe and secure from theft and yes… in top shape for the long haul. Here’s how:
How to Keep Your Passport Safe From Damage
Focus on collecting passport stamps, let your passport protector collect the battle scars. I wish I had. Dirt, grime, weather and humidity (rain, waves, waterfalls, sweat… ick… beer and wine) will damage the pages of your passport. All are easy to avoid. A simple, nondescript passport protector makes your passport less likely to attract attention (and keeps your nationality low key, Agent Bourne). Bonus points if it’s waterproof, especially if you don’t think you can abide by the ‘no swimming’🍷 policy.
Get The Right Gear To Keep Your Passport Safe
Well-thought-out travel gear makes it easy to store your passport someplace safe. If you always keep your passport in a dedicated passport pocket, it’ll be easy to find and grab when you’re on the move. Some bags (like the Carry-on 2.0 and Daily 😉) are designed so you can secure your passport behind locking zippers too.
Keep Your Passport In Its Place
It may seem like a no-brainer, but only take your passport out when you need it for official business. That’s actually not very often. You’ll want it close at hand on international travel days at the airport, but seldom need it otherwise. Often an alternative ID such as a driver’s license or copy will suffice. The less you waive your passport around in public the less likely it’ll be to get lost or stolen.
You Might Be Asked To Show Your Passport When:
- On trains (even if you’re not crossing national borders)
- Exchanging money
- Entering bars
- Checking into hotels
- Making large purchases or transactions
- Collecting VAT
- Seeking medical coverage
- Buying mobile phones
- Applying for visas
Make Copies Of Your Passport AND Visas
Passport copies are your salvation. They cut down on greasy fingerprints, keep you from having to hand over your actual passport and serve as backup on the off-chance that something happens to your original documents.
Keep a copy of your passport at home and make sure your emergency contact has one. Even though we go paperless as much as possible, actual printed passport copies are handy when you’re on the move. Rather than leaving your passport with the front desk clerk, a copy will often suffice. Keep a copy or two crisp in the document holder of your bag. If you have more than one bag, stash one there as well. That way even if some of your gear goes missing, you’ll still have backup.
How To Make A Secure Digital Copy of Your Passport
Passports are sensitive documents containing your personal information. Having a digital copy you can access right away can help ease the hassle of timezone differences that could slow the process of getting replacement documents. If you choose to go this route, use the secure notes feature of a password manager like LastPass to protect your digital copy. For an alternative USB method of digital storage, check out Expert Vagabond, Matthew Karsten’s post over here.
Passport Cards and Second Passports
Passport cards are credit card-sized versions of a passport intended for frequent land and sea border crossings. While they may not be recognized as valid where you’re traveling, they will be recognized by your own embassy should you need to get your passport replaced.
If you’re constantly on the move, and filling passports fast, obtaining a second passport from your home country might be an option.
Keep in mind that you always want to enter and leave a country on the same passport. When departing a country, immigration will look for your entry stamp. However, you can present a second passport for entry at your next destination. A second valid passport can also make travel smoother between nations that have political tensions with one another. The most common case for obtaining a second passport is when you need to travel internationally while a foreign visa is being processed. Depending where you’re from, certain visas can take weeks or even months to process (‘sup, Turkmenistan!).
Again, while it’s not recommended that you show your second passport for official purposes (unless it contains the entry stamp for the country you’re in), it could help speed the replacement process along at your own embassy.
Do I need to carry my passport at all times?
Travelers are divided on this issue and each country has its own laws. Let’s start with the basics: You must be in possession of a valid passport throughout the entire duration of your stay in a foreign country. Otherwise, you won’t be let in at all.
Quick but important note:
To enter most countries, your passport **must not expire until six months after your visit.** If your passport is nearing the end of its natural life, get it renewed before you set out to be on the safe side (NZ fam renew here).
Some travelers insist that this means you must keep your passport glued to your person at all times, others feel entitled to walk around with a copy and leave their original documents behind if they aren’t likely to be needed. Neither strategy is a total winner. It’s not too practical to have your passport on your person while you’re splashing around at the beach, but you’ll avoid a hassle if you’re stopped by law enforcement.
If you’re carrying your copy instead of an actual passport, you may be escorted back to your room to produce the original and depending on the location you could be threatened with a fine. It’s often wise to enlist the help of the front desk or your host to help clear things up and negotiate on your behalf if a ‘fine’ need be paid.
How to Keep your passport safe at your hotel or Airbnb
Use your best judgement based on the activities you’ll be doing each day. If you leave your passport behind, lock it in a room safe or in the lockable compartment of your bag. It’s true, the little safe in your room isn’t exactly Fort Knox, but security is about deterrence. Whether that means putting it into a mini safe, keeping your passport safe with luggage locks, or just securing your zippers with a carabiner, anything you can do to slow a thief down or complicate his/her mission makes it more likely that he/she will skip you and move on to the next.
How to keep your passport safe on your person
If you want maximum security, make sure to lock your passport in your bag. Just make sure you don’t leave it unattended. Otherwise, keep it in a front (or hidden) pocket that will be difficult for thieves to access.
If you’re considering a money belt, make sure it doesn’t look strange under your clothes and try to avoid accessing it in public. Think of how you’d behave in a big city back home. Stay alert and keep your gear close but don’t fiddle with your money belt or pat down your pockets. If you look paranoid, you’ll attract attention, if you keep things low-key you’ll usually end up all right.
Back In The Little Beige Room
I spent 90 minutes with two immigration officials talking through my passport’s battle scars, telling them story after story. One asked the questions in Korean, the other, a much younger man, repeated them in excellent English. Then the older man moved on to my background, why I was working in Japan, my address there, where I had lived in the US. He waited, nodding through each translation with a face of eternal calm before coming back to some seemingly insignificant detail about my passport, ’Why is this X on page 47? How did this happen-ed?’
I explained again.
At last, the two left the room to deliberate. After several minutes spent staring at the clock-less drab wall, I was told I would be allowed to enter South Korea in the end.
I thanked them profusely then rose to go. Before I could pull the handle, the older officer put his hand on the door. ’It’d be a shame if you lost your passport,’ he said with a stare. ‘Then you’d have to get a brand new one.’
He held my eyes until I nodded, slowly.
Now, six years on, my foil-embossed cover still shines like new. Brand new.