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Don’t let hidden passport rules ruin your trip abroad

The front of a U.S. passport, in New York, Jan. 25, 2016. Some countries don’t accept passports that are close to expiration.
The front of a U.S. passport, in New York, Jan. 25, 2016. Some countries don’t accept passports that are close to expiration. New York Times

If your passport hasn’t expired, then surely it’s valid, right?

Right?!?

Wrong. I’ll never forget the sense of dread I felt when my friend and colleague, Will Doran, told me that some European nations won’t let you enter if your passport expires within a certain amount of time.

It was my birthday. But, more importantly, it was six days before my wife and I were scheduled to fly to Italy for our belated honeymoon.

Friends joined me at a local mezcal bar to celebrate both occasions.

“I had to renew my passport and have it expedited because France doesn’t let you in if your passport expires within six months,” Doran said.

I had never heard of such rules. But a quick Google search revealed that France is one of 26 European countries in what’s known as the “Schengen” area that have varying passport requirements for entry. Many countries around the world have similar restrictions.

Some countries are more lenient than others. Great Britain, for example, only requires that visitors leave before their passports expire.

Spain won’t let you in if your passport expires within three months.

Italy? Same as France: They won’t let you in if your passport expires within six months.

I got my 10-year passport in 2008 but couldn’t remember exactly what month, and no amount of mezcal could put me at ease.

Cue the nervous laughter.

“If you can’t get a new passport, I’m going on our honeymoon without you,” my wife, Taylor, told me as we drove home.

She wasn’t joking.

We’d been planning this trip for over a year. I saved up precious vacation days. In lieu of birthday presents, family members gifted money for the trip. And we’d already spent nearly $2,000 booking plane tickets and Airbnb rooms.

And yet, upon a review of my passport, I wasn’t eligible to visit Italy. It expired in five months.

I could renew my passport by mail but, according to the U.S. travel department website, it wouldn’t arrive for at least two weeks. The agency doesn’t do overnight deliveries.

I decided to call the travel agency first thing the next morning.

I wondered: What if I didn’t get my passport renewed? What if we showed up to the airport wearing T-shirts that said “bride” and “groom,” and, if stopped, pleaded ignorance and shed a tear or two?

“They won’t let you on the plane,” a passport agent told me.

It was a Friday. To get my passport before we left on Wednesday, the agent told me I’d have to make an appointment to go to one of the travel department’s passport offices.

The Washington, D.C., office is the closest one to Raleigh, but the agent said that office was completely booked. He put my name on the list for an appointment at the Atlanta office first thing Monday morning.

So I booked a hotel a couple blocks from the passport office in downtown Atlanta and drove down Sunday night. I was one of more than two dozen desperate people waiting in line for the doors to open at 8 a.m. Monday.

Everything went smoothly. I brought the required documents: my soon-to-be-expired passport, my travel itinerary, a new passport photo that I had printed at a local pharmacy and the $170 I’d need for the new passport and associated expediting fee.

My new passport was ready by 2 p.m.

I drove back to Raleigh that night and arrived in Italy on Thursday with no problems.

The trip was to Italy was worth my trouble in Atlanta, but I’m irritated by the situation nonetheless.

I’d traveled abroad three times before this year and had never heard of the Schengen rules. While the rules are mentioned on the passport website, they appear nowhere in my passport – not even in the fine print.

A sentence or two in the passport is warranted, if not a broader effort to raise awareness about the rules. A passport office in the Carolinas would also be nice. (How does Hot Springs, Ark., have a passport office, but not Raleigh or Charlotte?)

Perhaps, when our elected leaders are done thinking about the people entering the United States, they could lend a hand to those of us who are trying to leave it.

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht

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