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March has been a busy international travel month for me. In 5 weeks I’ll make 4 trips to Europe, racking up a ton of miles and passport stamps. However, on my return trip from Spain, I was somewhat bitched out by a US Immigration officer at JFK for not having enough open spots to stamp in my passport.
First of all, why do we need manual stamps? Isn’t everything about our lives recorded electronically anyway? I wasn’t in the mood to pose such questions to the officer, however, so I acted dumb, smiled and slinked away with a promise to get it fixed.
Not wanting to get denied entry to a country over lack of passport space, I immediately started my research. Since I realized this issue on a Sunday and my next trans-Atlantic flight was on a Friday I didn’t have the time to deal with mailing my passport somewhere and hoping it got back to me in time. Even with overnight mail, I still felt nervous about letting my passport out of my possession.
Most people told me to just pay an agency to do the dirty work for me, but seeing as that would cost me over $300 and I’d still have to give up possession of my beloved passport, I kept looking.
I had heard that there was a government-run US Passport office in NYC so I searched for reviews. One of the most useful pages I found was the Yelp listing, which gave it nearly 5 stars. A government agency getting 5 stars on Yelp? Something must be wrong.
But the more I researched it seemed like this was my best option. I went to the website and started the process of scheduling an appointment:
“Make an appointment 24 hours a day, 7 days a week using our automated appointment system at 1-877-487-2778.”
The automated system gave me an appointment date one week later – the Monday after I was supposed to return from Stockholm. Not going to work. So I called back and spoke to a representative who basically said, “Tough **** you can go to the Philadelphia or South Norwalk, Connecticut offices – they have open appointments.”
I hung up the phone and briefly considered, but both locations would require me to waste a bunch of time – a resource I don’t seem to have enough of lately. I then remembered reading a comment on Yelp that someone went to the NYC office without an appointment and didn’t have an issue, so I decided that would be the route I’d try. I’d go Thursday so just in case I got rejected I could do the Connecticut option on Friday if need be. However, I’d make the appointment for next Monday and use that confirmation number in case I was asked. If pressed on it I’d play dumb.
On Thursday morning I headed to the Hudson and Houston St. location and due to traffic got there later than expected – around 8:00 am (the office opens at 7:30am). I was worried because I heard there were long lines, but when I walked in I was the only person to go through security. The security screener was friendly, but firmly stated no food, drink, or cameras and he checked to see if I had my itinerary showing that I had a flight within two weeks. That piece of paper would turn out to be the only thing people cared about
Thanks to hundreds of run-ins with TSA, going through security was a breeze and I think I noticed the security guard giving me a weird look as I unknowingly slipped into my airport routine. In one fell swoop rapidly taking all valuables out of my pockets; watch off, belt off, walking through the metal detector (as if I had a line of impatient business travelers waiting behind me).
Once through security I approached the reception desk and before I could say anything the rep asked for my itinerary showing a flight departure within 14 days. I showed my delta.com printout and she gave me a number and form to fill out. Once I had them I went up to the 10th floor to wait my turn.
My wait only ended up being about 30 minutes and during that time I got to watch tons of people frantically beg for favors and mercy. One woman actually admitted she had no idea she needed a passport to travel and actually showed up at JFK without one and tried to board a flight to Europe. Ridiculous.
Before I knew it, my number was called and I approached the window. The man behind the window was clearly a brand new employee, since he had a more seasoned rep guiding him through the process. I handed him my form, passport and confirmation number. He actually looked at the confirmation number and said, “What the heck is this? Your phone number?” He wished. But seriously, it just goes to show that they don’t care if you have an appointment or not.
Two minutes later my paperwork was processed, my wallet was $142 lighter (at least I was able to use a points earning credit card!) and I was told to come back between 12 – 2pm for pickup. Wow. Besides the fact that I had to pay $142 for pieces of paper that would be glued into my passport, I thought the whole process was pretty efficient – at least for a government agency.
I came back at 1pm and waited 5 minutes before walking out with my new and improved, much thicker passport. As TPG reader Sheri pointed out I probably should have just gotten a new passport, but that would have required more paperwork and I’m weirdly attached to my current passport.
That being said, after waiting at JFK for about an hour this Sunday, I promptly applied for the Global Entry program this week. I paid my $100 fee and submitted the application, so I’ll do a full post on that process when I’m finally (hopefully) approved.