Thursday, June 16, 2011

The New Passport

Elizabeth Zelvin

I’ve just received my new passport, and my, how things have changed in the ten years since I got the last one. Technology, global concern with security, and the opportunities for skulduggery, always of interest to a mystery writer, all ain’t what they used to be.

Let’s start with the application. Last time, if I remember correctly, I went to the post office, stood on a line, went to the photo shop to get my 2x2-inch unflattering passport photo taken, went back hours later after they’d developed it....This time, I completed the form online, then downloaded it as a PDF. I then took my own unflattering photo, holding my digital camera out at arm’s length. The hardest part was taking pictures off the wall so I could stand against a plain white background as required. Immediately after snapping the shot, I downloaded the digital image to my computer, resized it to 2x2, and printed it on glossy photo paper. I popped application, photo, and old passport in a Priority Flat Rate envelope and used a machine at the post office to stamp it and add a delivery confirmation request. Mailing the envelope used to be the easy part: popping it in a mail box. Now, I always hand Priority mail to a human, since if you don’t, it tends to get returned to sender as bypassing proper security precautions.

My new passport arrived with a spiffy booklet entitled, “With Your U.S. Passport, the World is Yours!” and containing five columns of “buts.” Before I travel, I can visit for consular information sheets and travel warnings. I can register my trip at so that the Department of State can assist me in case of an emergency. There’s a whole section on international adoption, one on illegal activities such as drug trafficking, child exploitation, and human trafficking and another headed, “International Parental Child Abduction isn’t ‘just a custody issue.’ It’s a crime.”

The passport contains an electronic chip, and a whole page covers what it can do, how it works, and “How do I know my Electronic Passport will work?” There’s a special electronic passport logo that I need to look for, since I need to use the special immigration lanes displaying the logo “to be assured of the fastest and most efficient processing.” I wonder if it’ll speed up the most time-consuming bits: taking off the shoes and, in my case, being wanded and patted down, since metal detectors always pick up my titanium shoulder replacement.

So how about the skulduggery? It’s going to be a lot harder to forge electronic passports—I’d like to say impossible, but we know how sophisticated high tech criminals are these days—or recycle lost or stolen ones. I chose to get a handy passport card, good for hopping over to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean, along with my regular passport. The card, too, has an electronic chip. Mystery writers have already had to adapt to the Internet changing how detectives work and the cell phone requiring that plucky heroines be either unlucky or TSTL (the proverbial “too stupid to live”) to get caught in a dark cellar or a cemetery with a killer and no way of summoning help. Now we’re also deprived of our characters’ option of spontaneously crossing borders in pursuit of or in flight from a villain.


Sheila Connolly said...

Recently I've read a couple of articles about the European credit/cash cards that have a chip embedded in them--and why our outdated US credit cards may not work in other countries. (What, they don't want our money?) I had never realized that my current passport (issued in 2008) had a chip, but now that I read it, it tells me it contains "sensitive electronics." Yikes!

Just to muddy the waters, I'm eligible to get an EU passport as well. And I can't wait to see if the metal in my ankle sets off alarms--I didn't know about your bionic shoulder, Liz!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, according to my stepdaughter, who's married to a Brit, the big advantage of two passports is that you can get on the line for citizens at Customs, which always moves faster than the line for foreigners, whether you're entering the US or the UK.

Sandra Parshall said...

When I flew for the first time after my knee replacement, I got the full security treatment, and it's going to be that way from now on. I didn't realize passports now have security chips embedded in them, but now that I think about it, I realize it makes perfect sense.