If you’re a UK citizen enjoying a similarly nomadic lifestyle to ourselves we recommend that you put some thought into where you’re going to be when you run out of passport pages. Here’s our salutary tale of trying to renew British passports whilst abroad:
Our story begins in Thailand, in December 2013. Aware that we were running low on pages we decided to take advantage of the fact we were in one place for a few months (training to be Divemasters) and renew our passports. A short burst of googling later we discovered we couldn’t just go to the nearest embassy as we’d hoped but would need to post our applications to Hong Kong. Over the next few days we duly printed out and filled in all the forms, had photos taken, and then logged back on to double check the Hong Kong address, only to discover that the process had been changed the previous day (with no warning whatsoever). The new forms required different information, including proof of our address in Thailand, and the applications now had to be sent to the UK. Unsure what proof of address we could provide for a beach-side chalet on an island off the east coast of Thailand we phoned the passport office “help”line, and spoke to Nicola whose sage advice amounted to telling us that we “should have left home with jumbo size passports instead of standard ones…d’you know what I mean?”
Tongues were bitten, eyes were rolled and a Plan B was quickly devised and put into action, whereby we used the remaining pages in our passports to cycle through Laos and Thailand with our friends Sue & Justin and then to Malaysia where, the passport office website informed us, we could apply for passports without having to submit proof of address. We would however have to submit our old passports, something we were not happy about as we needed them to register at hotels, access medical care and, in the worst case scenario, travel home if there was a family emergency. According to several sources we should also have our passports on us at all times to present to the Malay police upon demand.
In March 2014, as we got closer to Malaysia, we started looking more closely at what information we’d need to provide. Although we wouldn’t need to submit proof of address, we would need to provide our ‘residential address’. It wasn’t clear whether this meant our UK address or the Malaysian address of some friends who’d agreed to receive our passports for us whilst we were pedalling around. We emailed the helpline, explaining that we are nomadic and asked which address we should put for our ‘residence’. They replied saying: “I can confirm that you will need to put the address when you are applying and this is the address that the new passport will be delivered to.”
We took that to mean that they wanted us to use our friends’ Malaysian address as our ‘residential’ address, even though we wouldn’t be there when the new passports were delivered.
We remained unhappy about having to submit our passports, so since the website said to contact the (ahem) “help”line for specific advice we reluctantly phoned them again…only to be told that they couldn’t give us specific advice. Somehow we weren’t surprised. They did however suggest that we submit a colour photocopy of every page of our current passports along with an explanation of why we were not submitting the originals. We followed this advice and settled down to wait the ‘minimum of 4 weeks’ that it would take to process our applications. It was now early May 2014.
Every couple of days we checked our emails and the online status of our applications in case the assessors needed any further information from us. After almost six weeks of silence, and with our deadline to exit Malaysia looming, we contacted the helpline again. They told us they’d look into things and the next day we received an email telling us that we hadn’t submitted our original passports and we would need to give an explanation about why we had not done this….which of course we’d already done, upon their advice, at the time of application.
Around this time we also caught up with the news that the Home Secretary had had to put emergency measures in place to deal with an enormous backlog in passport applications due to the passport office’s woeful lack of planning. Worried, we contacted the helpline again (frustratingly we could only speak to the (un)helpline and not to the people actually assessing our applications) and the written reply resulting from this call tersely informed us we could either submit our current passports or cancel the applications (losing the money we’ve already paid) and return to the UK to apply from there. This missive, whilst unhelpful in so many ways, did at least give us an email address for the person assessing our applications, so we sent them a long and impassioned plea. We re-stated why we did not want to be without our current passports (now including the fact that we needed them to exit Malaysia at the imminent end of our allotted 90 days) and asked them to explain why they needed them, given that if applying from many other countries, like Thailand, we wouldn’t need to submit our passports. We even offered to travel to Kuala Lumpur to have our old passports cancelled by the embassy there in return for new ones. The reply was prompt but as terse and intransigent as before: we would have to send in our current passports before they would consider giving us new ones. They declined to answer any of our questions, but did confirm that they would hold our applications open until after we’d done a visa run to Singapore and returned to Malaysia with a further 90 day stay granted, after which we would, reluctantly, send them our passports. They also intimated that our new passports would be ready to be sent out as soon as they received our old passports, which we supposed was slightly reassuring.
Our visa run to Singapore in early July went without a hitch, and the nice people at the immigration desks kindly stamped in the small blank spaces we’d located in our over-used passports. We returned to Tioman Island resigned to having to relinquish our passports for a while but cheering ourselves with the thought we were on the home straight.
Hahaha, how naively optimistic we were. The saga continued when we tried to post our passports and discovered that the post office on Tioman doesn’t even sell stamps, let alone provide a registered delivery service, so we needed to get our passports back to a post office on the mainland. One of the owners of the dive school was going to Singapore so he volunteered to post our passports en-route in Johor Bharu, but the post office there was closed…on a Friday. Our passports returned to Tioman and a couple of days later were passed to one of the ferry captains along with some dive school business correspondence to post from the post-office in Mersing (the nearest largish town on the mainland). Still no joy though: it turned out that Malaysia Post was in no way prepared to take responsibility for our passports.
I’m not sure if were onto plan C or plan D by this point. It was beyond farcical. Every few days we’d email the passport office telling them of our latest attempt to get our passports to them. Luckily, the other dive school owner, who lives in Kuala Lumpur, was visiting the island and offered to take our passports to KL and DHL them for us, thus saving us a trip to the mainland and several hours on a bus to Kluang (the nearest DHL to Tioman). By this time though it was Hari Raya, the end of Ramadan celebrations, and DHL would take our passports but could not despatch them for a further 4 days….taking us into early August. Gaaaah! It had taken us an entire month to get our passports from the little island of Tioman back to the UK.
The difficulty we were having getting our passports from Malaysia to the UK made us worry about how we’d be reunited with our new passports when and if they were sent to our friends house in Penang. We asked the passport office if it would be possible to change the delivery address and have them sent to the dive school business address in Mersing. Oh, silly us!
Their reply was, as usual, less than encouraging.
“If you wish your passport to be delivered to an address which you do not reside at, please complete the declaration below, paying special attention to the reason for this request. We will not normally return your passport to an address that is different from your current residential address and so cannot guarantee that your request will be granted. Please note that you are also agreeing to accept liability for non-receipt if the passport is received and signed for at this address.”
Bearing in mind that several months previously we’d begun the application process with a conversation about residential addresses, and told them on several occasions that we were travelling by bicycle and not actually resident in Malaysia, this was just another example of the passport office apparently not reading a single thing we’ve sent to them. We decided to stick with our original plan and worry about how to actually get our hands on our passports later.
To our great relief our old passports finally reached the UK, our new passports were dispatched and we had confirmation from our friends on 9 August that they received them. It took another week for my old passport to be returned and we finally heard on 22 August that Keith’s old passport had arrived too (we need our old passports as well as the new, as they contain our entry-stamp into Malaysia). To facilitate reuniting us with our passports the amazing Myers family decided to come to Tioman for a holiday so today we were finally united with our passports (old and new) and had a far too short lunch with Brett, Noey and the four kids. It was sooo nice to see them all again.
Now it’s behind us we’re trying to forget how frustrating the process was when we were in the throes of it. And we fully appreciate that it would have been even more awful if we hadn’t had so much help from so many people here. When we tell our tale to international friends they laugh their socks off at the British process: in most other European countries it seems they just go to their embassy and in a matter of days have new passports. Come on UK….your bureaucratic obtuseness is an embarrassment, not to mention a very stressful experience for the travelling cyclist trying to renew their passport.