Melissa and I are going on vacation. On Sunday we leave for the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church in Roanoke, Virginia. We arrive back home next Thursday afternoon, then fly out early on Friday (the 15th) for Anchorage, Alaska to board a Holland America 7-day cruise that ends in Vancouver, British Columbia. This will be our second Alaska cruise, the first being our honeymoon two years ago. Two years ago, doing a cruise that went the opposite direction (from Vancouver to Anchorage), we didn’t need passports to enter Canada. With a birth certificate (proof of U.S. citizenship) and a government-issued ID card (like a driver’s license), the border was open for us to cross.
But the rules have changed. New Homeland Security rules now require a passport for those traveling to or from Canada by air, and will soon require a passport for those traveling by boat or car too. Since we will be reentering the United States by air (from Vancouver back to DC), we needed to apply for passports.
So on March 31, about eleven weeks from our trip, we put in our applications at the local post office. The Department of State, who issues passports, stated unequivocally that passport processing and delivery could take up to ten weeks. We knew we were cutting it a bit close, but ‘up to ten weeks’ means ‘ten weeks or less‘ so we weren’t too worried (and had no intention of paying the steep fee to have the passports ‘expedited’).
I started getting nervous a week ago today—two weeks from our flight to Anchorage—when it still hadn’t arrived.
I called the passport information number, which won’t even accept calls from people traveling in more than two weeks, and was hung up on automatically. Apparently their system only lets a small percentage of calls through). Redialing twenty or so times, I finally got put on hold for a half hour. When a human finally came on, they ‘expedited’ Melissa’s and my passports for free but committed to nothing.
On Wednesday, I repeated the process to get the status and they could provide no new information.
Yesterday, frustrated, I turned it over to Melissa, since she’s a bulldog about things like this. After she got the runaround from the passport information number (and was rudely hung up on by them twice), we called in the big guns and Melissa got in touch with our congressional representatives’ offices.
Senator Jim Webb’s (D-VA) office apparently handles passport issues for Virginians, and Melissa got in touch with a very helpful woman there. She sent a Passport Inquiry Form via email which we filled out and sent back very quickly, and by the end of the day yesterday we found out from Senator Webb’s office that the Department of State—in a stunning example of government efficiency and reliability—had not even begun to process our applications. We are leaving the ‘lower-48’ in one week, and our passports are stuck in a bureaucratic netherworld.
The good news is we’re not alone. As of today, the Bush Administration has suspended many of the new passport rules for travel to/from Canada and Mexico because of the State Department’s incredible failure to keep up with demand.
Melissa and I were initially concerned. The old rules required a birth certificate, and the State Department has our birth certificates as part of the required documentation for passport processing and they won’t be returned until—surprise—they’re done processing our passports. Thankfully they thought of this when relaxing the rules, as only two things are required for travel to/from Canada under the temporary rules: A government-issued ID (which we have) and a receipt proving we have applied for a passport (which we also have).
So we still get to go on vacation, but boy did the government cut it close. I can tell you this: If we’d had to cancel our vacation because of this, I would have been absolutely livid. The U.S. Department of State would have received a formal invoice for all the money we’d have lost in cancellation fees.