Saturday, August 04, 2007

Passport Renewal

Last year I renewed my passport and just last Thursday we went to the embassy for my 6-year-old daughter’s passport renewal. I don’t normally have good things to say about our American embassy staff in Manila, but they seem to get it right when it comes to this simple endeavor.

Last summer I was in a bit of a panic when I realized my passport was going to be within 6 months of expiration during the last week of a scheduled training trip to the States. The rule is that no passport should be within 6 months of termination while traveling.

The immigration “crew” in Manila is infamous for "seizing" passports in this “status” and frightening travelers out of a “bribe,” or lets be euphemistic and call it a “penalty,” until you pay them to let you on the plane. Its illegal as hell, but they get away with it all the time. If they try it, call their bluff, ask for their names and then ask for their supervisor; of course, that won’t work if their supervisor is in on it too. The best thing is to check your passport date and make sure you have plenty of time on it before trying to travel with it.

It turned out to be very easy to get mine renewed. I called the local transport service used by the embassy and they sent out a packet the next day. It contained all the forms I needed to fill out and explicit instructions on what I needed to include when I was ready for the service to come back out and pick it all up.

All I had to do was get four 2x2 photos of myself, fill out the forms, and call the Air21 people. Unlike the embassy itself, they ALWAYS answer the phone with a real live person, and that person has all the answers. The price is reasonable too, only about 5 or 6 bucks for the entire service start to finish.

The very next morning the pickup guy came by on his motorcycle and accepted receipt of my old passport, my forms and photos, and of course, my money, cash of course. We both signed the receipt and off he went. Within 3 weeks my new passport showed up at my front door. Beautiful.

The cost of the passport itself is like 80+ dollars, which seems kind of pricey to me, but even if it were ten times that I'd still have no choice but to pay it. They got us coming and going.

My daughter’s passport was not quite so easy, but not so bad just the same. She was just 2 months old when she had received her first passport, so her photo in no way resembles her current looks.

Still, it still worked similarly in that I called the Air21 people and they sent out the passport renewal package for a child under the age of 14. I filled out all the forms and carefully read the instructions. Obviously, this was going to be a lot more involved than for my own renewal.

We had to get together a series of photos showing my daughter from age 1 up to the present. This being “the land of fraud,” naturally, the embassy staff wanted to make sure we weren’t trying to pass off some other little girl as our little citizen-daughter. Even understanding this concern, I still couldn't help but to feel a little insulted.

Another requirement was that we had to get a notary stamp on a form stating that our daughter was our daughter. Sheesh! That cost us another 500 pesos. What a rip-off. Notaries in the States don’t cost even half of that. Still, you got to do it—so we sucked it up.

We had to include our daughter's birth certificate and our ID as parents, and all of these docs had to be original. I included both my wife’s and my military ID cards. It was either that or our passports. I went for the IDs since they are easier to replace. The Air21 people reassured me that we’d get them back when we showed up at the embassy.

The instructions are very explicit about showing up at the embassy—BOTH parents and the child, all three MUST present themselves. While waiting for our final meeting with a counselor I listened to some woman argue with another counselor that she was never told that her husband had to come too, and that he was very busy at his job in the office at Makati. I was thinking, “I guess they didn’t bother to read the instructions.’ She also argued that she had called the embassy and the person on the phone never mentioned that requirement specifically, as if that was a valid argument.

Less than a week after our package was picked up, the embassy called and set us up for an appointment 10 days hence at 7:30 a.m. I had a car set to pick us up at 5 a.m. and we were on the road by 5:20. I handed the driver his 3000 pesos, up from the old 2800 pesos—inflation due to rising gas prices I guess.

Traffic wasn’t too bad. There were only two or three chokepoints on the way due to roadwork and a couple of accidents. Unfortunately, my girl inherited my childhood penchant for motion sickness and just 20 minutes from the embassy she threw up all over her pretty white dress. My wife did her best to clean her up including taking off the dress so she could blot it off and let it dry a little. (Make a note to be better prepared for that possibility next trip!)

Our driver pulled into the parking lot of a children’s cultural museum just down from the embassy at about 7:15. The museum is a good place to park since its cheap, only about 50 pesos, and there is a guard at the gate.

We made the short walk up Roxas Boulevard to the opening in the embassy outer wall. Surprisingly, there was no one else in line. The guard asked my wife our business; I showed my passport and he politely pointed the way to door 3 where we went through internal security. They checked our things and ran us through the metal detector.

By the way, don’t bother trying to bring in your cell phone. They WILL confiscate it inside door 3 and there are times that it can take as much as 30 minutes of waiting to get it back. Leave it at home, or if you have a car or a driver, leave it in your vehicle.

At exactly 7:30 we strolled into the American Services section. I made a beeline to the head and while I was washing my hands I heard my daughter’s name being called for us to report to window C. Wow, right on time!

The Filipino fellow at the window asked that we lift our girl so she could sit on the ledge while he “interviewed” her. She was still a bit queasy and sleepy from the early morning rise and her carsickness, and she did not do well during the questioning. He asked her how old she was and she barely whispered, “six.” He asked her name and again she barely whispered. He asked her to point to mommy and daddy and she just stared straight ahead looking queasy and miserable. Finally, he just gave it up.

The half dozen pictures we’d included in the Air21 pickup had not been good enough for them, so we brought an entire photo album as per more than their request. My wife squeezed it under the window by opening it in half and shoving it through. I knew the photos would provide conclusively the validity of our daughter, so I wasn’t worried about the bogus interview.

The counselor told us to take our paperwork to the cashiers window across the hall and to bring back the paid receipt where we should place it under the glass at window E. The nice thing about paying at the embassy these days is that they NOW accept credit cards, something they didn't used to do. At last, a little convenience! After that, we were supposed to have a seat and wait for the "final" interview.

We sat and watched the other families around us as they studied us, while we all waited to get the heck out of there. At 8:30 we finally heard the welcome loudspeaker request to go to Window A. An American fellow waited for us there behind the largest of all the plexiglass windows and asked us to sign the final forms. He then asked us to raise our right hands and to swear that everything we had turned in was true and correct. You know, I don't remember doing that when I had filled out the forms for my original passport. Strange...
As he put our papers and documents in order he asked us more questions like, how long had we been married, how long had we lived here, where did we live, how was our trip there—and I nervously answered each of his questions. He realized that I thought he was still grilling us about the passport, and smiling, he said hastily, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m just making conversation.”

“Oh, I thought you were still questioning whether this is really my daughter, especially after the little 3rd degree the other guy just gave her.”

“Well, they have to make sure. She doesn’t look like this anymore, right? Their job is just to make sure.” He pointed to the old passport picture of my daughter as a 2 month old.

“Yeah, you’re right.” I admitted grudgingly.

He handed us back all our photos, ID cards, and my daughter’s birth certificate and old passport, telling us that the delivery service would hand carry our girl’s new passport to us sometime next week.

We were home by 10:15, not bad at all.


Amadeo said...

Phil, I don't know if our situation here applies to embassies abroad because we are in the midst of a huge passport issuance/renewal problem.

Thus, if issuance/renewal is centralized here including those abroad, then the backlog would apply to you.

Right now, the wife's renewal is going on its third month and no new passport received. DOJ says this will go on till September. Since hers was mailed, I followed it up online and indeed DOJ has received the application but no action yet.

The reason? Homeland Security's new law that requires all trips to our northern/southern neighbors, including Carribean, now require a show of passports.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Lucky us! Evidently, our embassy produces its own passports. Thank goodness for small favors. My daughter will have her new passport in a week or two, so not a problem.

Ed said...

Thankfully as many papers as I have had to have notarized over the last three years, every single one has been free through my bank or a gal here at work.

I've been delaying getting my daughter a passport for the reasons mentioned up above. It's total gridlock right now. Fortunately my MIL now has a ten year multiple entry visa so she can come over here instead of us going over there. Much cheaper for my wallet since I pay it either way.

PhilippinesPhil said...

The money isn't the only reason why it might be better to bring her over there. I've never been more paranoid in my life than I am right now. But then it could just be the town I live in; I'm anxious to leave this place. I will eventually.