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Aug 312017
 

Your passport shows an expiry date on it. So why do some ‘experts’ say it can’t be used during the last six months of its life?

Don’t you find it frustrating to have a theoretically valid and unexpired passport, but to be told by airlines and potentially by foreign countries that you can’t use your passport if it is due to expire maybe as much as six months after you’ve finished your travels.  Perhaps you’re traveling for 3 or 4 weeks, and if you have to allow a month or two to get a passport renewal, that extends the period of ‘non-valid validity’ out to nine months or even more.

Some countries issue five-year passports – and that’s the case for child passports in the US too – which means that the expensive and hassle filled passport loses 15% of its validity.  A five-year passport becomes good for only 4 1/4 years.  Ugh!

On the other hand, many countries will allow you to travel, even if your passport is due to expire very shortly after the planned completion of your travels, and some seem happy to let you into the country, just so long as your passport is valid on the day you enter, even if it expires the next day!

But we’ve several times heard horror stories of airlines refusing to transport passengers due to their passport expiring ‘too soon’ even though the destination country’s regulations indicate the passport had plenty of acceptable validity.  Because the airlines are liable to substantial fines if they fly people with non-compliant passports/visas to a foreign country, they tend to be very risk averse and may choose to impose a blanket rule requiring more ‘spare time’ on a passport than do the countries.

And if you think arguing that point is a battle you’re going to win while checking in for a flight, please think again.  That reminds me of the time I was told, when trying to fly from Seattle to Vienna, that I would not be allowed to travel to Austria, because I didn’t have a valid Austrian visa in my US passport.  It was only after I managed to get a supervisor to come and assist that it transpired the check-in desk woman was confusing Australia with Austria!

Many websites mindlessly recommend you should always have at least six months of remaining validity on your passport.  Others even refer to it as a rule, while saying some countries don’t enforce the rule, as if suggesting we should be appreciative of the special waiver.  It is not a universal rule at all – and, as you’ll see below, it isn’t even a common requirement!

Oh – one more frustration.  We’ve also seen some countries that appear to have conflicting or unclear information on their websites and on other websites reporting on their policies; worst of all being references to ‘…. at the discretion of the immigration officer’.  What does that mean?  What should you do?  Which advice can you trust?

Is there a more thoughtful way, and which gives you more effective life on your passport, to plan your travels?

Why Does This Problem Arise?

Well, if you can answer that question, please share it with the rest of us!

The reality is that almost always, any country will allow their citizens to return home on a passport that expired while their citizen was traveling.  The further reality is that most countries can arrange emergency passports for their citizens if their passports are lost while traveling abroad, and can extend or renew passports for their citizens while they are away from home as well.

So the need to always have at least six months of remaining validity on a passport is a totally unnecessary requirement, no matter how you look at it.  There isn’t a country in the world that renounces the citizenship of its people because their passport has expired – if that were true, what would be the status of the majority of citizens of every country who either have never had passports or who let them expire?

Furthermore, with all the security sharing of information around the world these days, most countries already know very much more about us than the limited information contained in our passports.  Now we have to share our name and date of birth, and possibly address, email, phone numbers, credit card numbers, and frequent flier memberships, plus link our data to that of other people traveling with us, all as part of any international airline booking.  We also have to enter our passport number, where it was issued, and expiry date.  Actually handing our passport over as we go in and out of countries is merely the tip of the knowledge iceberg (or, to use the parlance beloved by the TSA, ‘just one of the many layers of security’).

A cogent case could be argued that in many cases, and for many countries, all we need to do is show any sort of official photo ID to confirm we are the person we claim to be.  Even the need for photo ID is dubious, because the data sharing between countries, and the information in many visa applications, extends to photos.  When the immigration official’s screen is already showing him your picture, plus your physical description such as height and eye color, does he even need to see any photo ID at all?

But security is as mindless as it is pervasive, so it is unlikely common sense will ever prevail; instead, we see more and more unnecessary and duplicative paperwork surrounding our every move, as witness the need to now show a passport when traveling to and from Canada.

Two Terrible Examples of This Nonsense

If you go to Singapore, you will be allowed to stay for up to 90 days without needing to apply for a visa.  That is the good news, and a lovely convenience (similar to that in most other countries, of course).  But, unlike most other countries, Singapore demands that your passport not expire until six months after your arrival.

With all due respect to Singapore, why should they care what happens to your passport for the three (or probably many more) months after you have left Singapore?

It could be worse.  Singapore only gives a one month stay to Canadians but still insists on six month validity, meaning five mystery months they shouldn’t be worrying about.

The second example is with Taiwan.  Great news for US citizens – just turn up with your passport and a smile on your face, and you’ll be welcomed into the country.  But if you live in Canada, your passport must remain valid for at least six months after your arrival.  Why can a US citizen arrive without needing extra validity, but the Canadian citizen is required to have the extra six months of validity?  Where is the sense or consistency in this?

Is Passport Expiry Calculated Based On When You Arrive or Depart the Foreign Country?

It would seem logical to assume that your passport expiry most relates to when you leave a foreign country, not when you arrive.  So, if that is the logical way of looking at things – yes, you guessed it.  Many countries tend to focus on the date you arrive rather than the date you depart.

Perhaps the most complex requirement comes from Turkey.  That country, as best we can understand, requires both five months of passport validity after your arrival date and also two months of remaining validity after your departure date.  No, we don’t know why.

Passport Expiry and Visa Expiry

First of all, it is necessary to clarify what a visa is – many people misunderstand.

A visa is generally a written indication that you have been pre-screened and deemed to be probably suitable to be admitted to a country.  A visa might say the number of times you can visit, and the period the visa remains valid for.  Some visas are for one only visit, some are for two or three, and some are ‘multiple’ and good for any number of visits during the validity of the visa.

But (in general, with rare exceptions) there are two things a visa does not do.  First, it does not guarantee you will be allowed to enter the country that granted you the visa – that is a decision the Immigration Officer will make when interviewing you upon arrival.  Secondly, it does not guarantee how long you will be allowed to stay if you are admitted to enter the country – that is another decision the officer will make when you arrive in the country.  For example, a ‘one year visa’ does not mean you can visit the country and stay there for one year, it simply means that during the one year validity of the visa, you may go to that country for whatever normal or special period of time is granted to you when you arrive.

Now for the problem with some (but not all) visas.  Maybe you wish to be issued a three-year visa, because you have several journeys planned to the foreign country over the next several years.  Some countries will insist that your passport is valid for six months longer than the visa validity period.  So there you are, applying for a three-year visa, and you would only be able to get it if your ten-year passport was no older than 6.5 years.  That is a massive reduction in potential passport validity, isn’t it.

A related problem is that if the foreign country gives you a visa for an extended period, and your passport expires during the period of the visa, does that mean you have lost the validity of the visa for the rest of its time?  For example, Russia says that if/when your passport expires, then so too will their visa.  (Obviously, if you are paying extra for a longer visa validity period, make sure you can actually benefit from its full validity!)

Some countries don’t care if your passport expires before their visa expires, figuring that when your passport expires, so too does your visa.  Other countries will recognize and accept their earlier and still current visa in a now expired passport, and either copy the visa over to your new passport, or allow you to travel with both your old and new passports, so as to show both a current visa and a (separate) current passport (for example, China allows this).

How to Determine Each Country’s Policies

This is of course important, but also, alas, extremely difficult.  We have seen conflicting information on sites that would normally be thought to be authoritative, and perhaps the various statements from various sources is why some people throw their hands up in despair and simply say ‘make sure you always have six months remaining on your passport’, because, no matter what the reality of the requirements, having six months remaining validity is probably going to always be acceptable.

Even countries as seemingly friendly and transparent as New Zealand have a conflict of information.  According to the airlines’ IATA maintained Timatic database, which is generally the ultimate and very best source of information about passport and visa requirements, NZ requires you to have at least one month of remaining validity on your passport beyond your anticipated departure out of New Zealand (although adjacent Australia doesn’t care about any remaining passport validity at all).  But both the US State Department and New Zealand’s own Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims you need to have three months of validity from the date of your arrival in New Zealand.  That’s quite a significant difference for people who are probably only going to NZ for a couple of weeks.

Which is correct?  The airlines will probably insist you observe the Timatic requirement, but what about the guy in the immigration booth at Auckland Airport?  What will he say?

(Actually, I asked the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  They advised that it is indeed one month for citizens of countries with consular representation in NZ, but three months for others.  So Timatic is correct, and NZ’s own website is misleading and incomplete!)

So, with this as introduction to this vexed problem, there are several sources you can use :

Our favorite source has always been the Timatic database used by the airlines.  This is a feature of all airline computer reservation systems, and sometimes can be found on public websites too.  Currently, it can be accessed through the Emirates website (thank you, Emirates).

Another ‘pathway’ into the Timatic data is this site.  It requires more data to be entered by you, but if you’re just doing a single check of a single country for yourself, maybe that isn’t too bothersome a task, and it gives you a clearer (although simpler) response than the slightly terse responses directly through Timatic.

You can and should ask the airline you are flying on what their policies are, too.  Their policy will probably be identical to what Timatic says, but you want to make sure it isn’t more restrictive.  And be sure to understand the difference between someone mindlessly saying ‘we recommend you should have at least six months of validity’ and the actual official policy and reality of what is needed.

US citizens can get information about passport validity requirements through the US State Department website.  This includes the useless recommendation that you should have six months of validity on your passport, even in cases where there is no need whatsoever (for example, when visiting Britain).  And in some cases, its information is not only wrong, but also contradicted by information on other pages on its own website.

For example, its advice about travel to Italy says

PASSPORT VALIDITY: Must have at least six months vaidity [sic] beyond your planned date of departure from the Schengen area.

That seems very clear and simple and mandatory, doesn’t it – ‘must have’.  But now go to its general page about travel to all European Schengen countries, where it says

Entry into any of the 26 European countries in the Schengen area for short-term tourism, a business trip, or in transit to a non-Schengen destination, requires that your passport be valid for at least three months beyond your intended date of departure.

Even when it goes on to say that some countries will assume you are staying for three months, and so calculate a date based on three months of stay plus three months of extra validity – six months total requirement from the date of entry, that is different from saying, as the State Dept it, six months validity after the date of departure.

Citizens of other countries could of course also look at the US State Dept information, but it may not apply to other nationals.  In some cases, countries are more permissive of other nationals than they are of Americans; but in some cases, they are more restrictive.  If you’re not American, you should see if your country offers a similar resource.

Getting closer to the direct source of information, you could look up the destination country’s relevant website(s) for information.  Often a good start is to look for the country’s embassy in your home country and see what it says there.  If that is silent on the point, you could look at the country’s State Department, however it is called.

You might think you could rely upon the various commercial visa issuing services to give accurate advice.  But we have noticed problems and errors on such sites, for example, this site ridiculously says, for travel to Britain :

You must hold a passport valid for at least six months beyond your date of country exit and with one blank visa page

Both points are wrong.  You don’t need a blank visa page (this only applies if a country is going to affix a full-page visa into your passport), and your passport is fine, even if it expires on the day you return home.

Here is a PDF with information from Timatic about the passport validity policies of 48 countries – the 26 European Schengen nations and 22 other popularly visited countries.  The most shocking revelation in the table is that no countries require you to have a passport that doesn’t expire until at least six months after you leave their country!

There are four countries in this table that require your passport to be valid for at least six months after you arrive (Dubai, Egypt, Singapore and Taiwan), but none requiring six months validity after you depart.  So where did this almost universal rule come from?

The other astonishing revelation is that, certainly for Americans, 40 of the 47 other countries listed don’t require any additional passport validity at all.  In some cases it even seems the country allowing you to visit wouldn’t care if your passport expired during your visit!

Again – why has it become an almost universal ‘rule’ that your passport must have at least six months validity on it?

Beware of ‘Hidden’ Country Rules in the Middle of Your Travel (in particular, the US!)

One possible trap is that if you will be simply changing planes in another country – or not even changing planes, but briefly stopping, en route – as part of your journey, then there is a possibility that the passport validity policies of that country might also have to be considered.  Fortunately, very few countries in the world are as asinine as to insist that even people simply changing planes and never even leaving the secure part of their airport and going through immigration to officially ‘enter the country’ need to have a visa.  Unfortunately, for people traveling via the US, the US does require visas even for people simply changing flights.

In some respects, the US seems the least friendly country in the world when it comes to international travel – indeed, the US also demands to know the passenger details of passengers on all flights that ever enter its airspace, even if the flight never actually lands in the US at all!  A flight from Canada to the Caribbean, for example, has to get all passengers cleared by the US before it is allowed to fly over the country, even though the plane is always more than seven miles above it.

So, What to Do?

Should you just mindlessly give in, and make sure your passport is valid for at least six months after your intended return back to the US, every time you travel?  That’s what many people suggest.  But it only takes an easy phone call to your airline or a quick visit to the Timatic website to check what is really required, and if your passport will be compliant with the reality of what is needed, and if you don’t otherwise need to renew your passport, why not get as much use out of your passport as possible and delay renewing it as long as possible.

For Americans, you can renew your passport, as long as it has not expired more than five years ago, online (the process becomes more complicated for passports that expired further back).  Some other countries require fresh full new passport applications every time you get a passport, whether it is your first passport or your fifth, and whether your previous passport is current or expired.

So unless you’re in a job or personal situation where you might need to suddenly make an unexpected international journey, use up the full validity of your passport and let it sit, expired, until you are starting to plan your next journey.  With a passport renewal costing $110 plus probably an extra $25 acceptance fee, and if you’re traveling with a partner, you might save yourselves, well, more than the cost of a few cups of coffee, by only renewing your passport(s) as and when needed.

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