Keep that passport dry, or risk hassles

On a return trip home from Paris to the United States recently, I broke my No. 1 rule, and put my passport in the pocket of my nylon shoulder bag instead of a secure place beneath my clothes.

No, the passport wasn't stolen. I was exiting U.S. Customs in Seattle, so felt I was home-free as far as theft goes. What I didn't account for was feeling seriously jet-lagged when I decided to put my bag in the washing machine later that afternoon.

I washed my passport, and thus begun a saga far that was far more hassle than simply renewing a travel document.

The laundered passport didn't look damaged. It dried out fast without many wrinkles. A few stamps inside were slightly blurred, but the main page and picture, coated in plastic, looked fine. Then I found out what most people who have been through a flood or a hurricane know: Passports with water damage can no longer be used, and must be replaced - not renewed via the convenient mail-in application -but replaced, as in applying for a brand new passport as if it was your first time.

Even thought the passport looked OK to me, there was no way of telling if the RFID chip (the microchip inserted into passports to deter fraud) inside was damaged, an official told me over the phone. Surely someone in the Seattle Passport Agency would be able to check, I thought. I brought the passport in for inspection, but was told they had no way of testing the chip. Further, I learned, water damage invalidates a passport, no matter how current, and any attempt to use it is a federal crime. I could take my chances that the chip was OK, but given the current political climate, I decided to pass on the potential hassle the next time I reentered the U.S.

It's been a long while since I applied for a passport in-person. I've always renewed by mail. Now I had to start over, not only by filling out a detailed form, but by coming up with all the necessary documentation to prove citizenship and identity. The U.S. State Department lays it all out on a page titled "Replacing your Passport after the Storm.

Here's what's required:

You must apply in person to replace a damaged passport at an acceptance facility or at a passport agency. I went to an acceptance facility a few miles from my house, located in a City of Seattle neighborhood services center.

You need to send the following:  The damaged U.S. passport, a signed statement explaining the damage. Form DS-11 (Application for U.S. passport), Citizenship evidence  (e.g. birth or naturalization certificate),  a photocopy of citizenship evidence,  ID presented in-person, a  photocopy of the ID, and one passport photo taken in color without glasses.

An alternative to sending a certified copy of a birth certificate is to present a fully-valid, undamaged, expired U.S. passport.  Luckily, I have a stack of old passports in my desk drawer, and was able to use one as proof of citizenship. An officials told me that the expired  passport would be returned to me, but my current "invalid" passport would not. 

I paid the fee - $110 for the passport plus $25 to the acceptance facility - and went home, expecting to wait 4-6 weeks for routine delivery rather than pay extra for expedited service (2-3 weeks).

My new passport arrived in 10 days, and is now in the hands of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Uzbekistan, awaiting a visa for spring travel. Uzbekistan requires applicants to include copies of inside passport pages with stamps, along with the passport itself. I hope they will understand why all my pages are blank. Just in case, I included a note of explanation. 

So here's a lesson for all you experienced travelers: Whatever rules you set for yourself on the road, don't break them once you're home. And hang onto those expired passports. You never know when you might need one.

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