Passport Issues! Visiting the US Embassy in Singapore

Travis is my first new contributor to the blog, who will be writing a post every Wednesday to start. The idea behind adding guest contributors is to add different perspectives to the blog. Travis has a unique approach towards travel, given that he travels almost exclusively with his wife and young children, which is in stark contrast to my travels, which are usually alone.

You can find more posts by Travis here:


I’m currently on a month long trip in SE Asia with my family.

It probably goes without saying, but when traveling internationally it’s important to make sure that your passport is in order. You should verify that you have

  • at least 6 months of validity on the passport
  • sufficient pages available for visas and/or immigration stamps.

My wife and I (ok, mostly my wife) are really good about managing these types of things. In a stroke of good fortune, our passports were about to expire shortly after we met. Well, that’s not exactly good fortune, but by renewing them at the same time, we were able to synchronize our passport expiration dates such that we (theoretically) should only have to remember one date, instead of two. And since we almost always travel together, we are likely to run out pages together at the same time and whatnot. Of course, we also save on postage by mailing them together.

That said, the planning and syncing that you and your spouse may have done doesn’t help when you have kids. Even if you somehow synced the birth of your child with the expiration of your passport (good luck with that!) such that you could renew your passport at the same time that you get a new one for the kiddo, the child passport would only be valid for 5 years, and thus you’d eventually be out of sync again.

All of this is to say that we had a relatively significant passport issue on our hands at the start of our current trip. About three days before departing on our 30-day, 5 country SE Asian Adventure, we discovered that my three-year-old son’s passport probably didn’t have enough pages/empty spaces remaining given the number of countries we were visiting and, more importantly, transiting. Despite having a year and half of validity remaining, he only had a couple of empty pages and a few random spots remaining.   I guess that’s what happens when you’ve been to 24 countries by age 3!

We brainstormed.  My wife immediately discarded the obvious option – leaving him at home! (I argued it was his responsibility to have told us that he was nearly out of pages!)

Rather than pay various expedite fees, we decided that we would visit a US embassy while on the trip. After looking through our scheduled stops, it seemed that Singapore would be the easiest, particularly since we had a 2-day stopover there early in the trip.

Renewing passports versus adding pages

The next decision was what to do about the problem. The conventional answer was to add pages which costs $82The fee is the same regardless of whether the passport is for a child or an adult, which seems a bit odd. I get that it takes the same amount of labor and materials either way, but so does the making of the passport in the first place. Yet the original passport costs $80 for kids and $110 for adults. Why is the original passport fee reduced for kids? If the fee is based on the length of validity (5 years instead of 10), why isn’t it 50% of the adult fee?

The other alternative was to simply renew his passport at a cost of $80. This would give him a new set of pages as well as give him 5 more years of validity.

The tradeoff here was between spending $82 to extend the life of his current passport for 1.5 years or spending $80 to renew the passport for another 5 years. Breaking this down on a per year cost, adding pages would cost $55/year vs. $16/year for the renewed passport. This made the choice seem pretty obvious.

The problem is that new passports take time to be prepared, roughly 2 weeks according to the website as they are made in the US and then shipped to Singapore (or wherever you are in the world). Given that we are actually passing back through Singapore later in the trip, this seemed feasible, especially since you don’t have to surrender the old passport until you pick up the new one. But then we realized that between the Christmas holiday and the fact that President Obama had just declared the day after Christmas to also be a holiday, the embassy may not be open on our return transit through Singapore. Or there could be a delay in processing.  Just when you think the planets are aligning….

So in the end, we decided to just bite the bullet and get more pages.

Adding passport pages while traveling

US Embassy in Singapore
US Embassy in Singapore

The US Embassy in Singapore requires that everyone needing passport services make an appointment. Fortunately for us, there were still two appointment slots available on our one full day in the country. From a quick glance at US Embassies around the SE Asian region, it seems that each one gets to set some of their own rules, which is surprising to me.

Some require appointments, some do not. Some mention wanting to see a progression of pictures documenting the changes in appearance of minors (for passport renewals of minors), others do not. And the websites are all somewhat unique, which I suppose adds “flavor”, but adds some confusion to the process, at least to me.

With our appointment scheduled, we cabbed from the Bugis area out to Embassy Row in the Orchard Road district. We had never visited an embassy anywhere before, so this was really a new experience. The cab dropped us off in front of the massive compound. There was a large covered corral-style waiting area which was apparently for non-immigrant visa applicants, but a sign directed Americans to immediately proceed to the guardhouse. Outsourced security collected our cameras and phones before directing us through the metal detector and on inside.

Next was a long, stone ramp that scaled the outer walls of the compound. It might have been 50 yards long and somewhat steep, at least for a guy on crutches. It really felt like we were entering a castle. At the top of the ramp we passed through the next level of security, also outsourced I think, before entering the castle. This marked the end of the road for most visitors, as you quickly come face to face with no-nonsense Secret Service behind an elevated glass booth and an electronic door that leads to the inner sanctum.

Since we weren’t there to see the ambassador, we turned left to the passport services processing area. We took a number and had a seat. There was a sign permanently affixed to the wall stating that the wait today was 1 hour. It was just like the DMV!

Yet sure enough, 10 minutes later we were called to the window where we easily requested the additional pages and surrendered the passport. Then we went to the cashier to pay, either with credit card (in American dollars, no chance for a foreign exchange fee!) or in cash with Singapore dollars. This may have been sovereign American soil, but greenbacks were most definitely not welcome here!

The next day we returned to pick up the completed passport.

Suggestions for Managing Family Passports

  1. Don’t just check the expiration date of your passport, but also look at how many pages / spaces you have available, especially before you undertake a multi-country extravaganza.
  2. Sync up the passport expiration dates of as many family members as possible.  It may be worth renewing early (and sacrificing some months or years of validity) to get all of the kids on the same renewal schedule.
  3. Consider renewing a child’s passport instead of adding pages. Better yet, request additional pages in the new passport at the time of renewal.
  4. If you do end up needing to make an emergency visit to the US Embassy while traveling abroad, pay attention to the local policies.

What would you have done in this situation?

Comments

  1. FYI it’s not Secret Service that guards the embassy; it’s outsourced external security and Marine Service Guards in that booth.

  2. Personally had family passport issues while on a layover in Singapore, and this embassy wasn’t too helpful. Bangkok and Manila embassies were awesome, though.

  3. Given your situation, I would have added pages too. I don’t want to disappoint you even further but the US state dept started charging adding visa pages back in 2010. It used to be free.

    I got a new passport back in 2012 and since I knew there may be a possibility of even increasing the fees, I just added more pages (2 sets) in my passport for one lump sum of $82. It helps since I plan to visit more yellow fever vaccination required countries (got vaccinated back in 2010)… and pretty much most of those countries require a one-page visa for US passport holders.

  4. A Singaporean I met there said the locals are ticked off about how much space that embassy actually takes, considering how sparse land is in S’pore. The other embassies are a fraction of the size. I would have to agree with some posts here, as they are not helpful at all there …the HK consulate was much more helpful. I think this embassy is just a handy dandy CIA listening post for Asia 🙂

  5. the last time I added pages, it was free. my passport doesn’t expire for another 3 years, but I plan to renew before my next year rather than add more pages. there’s a non-standard 52-page version, which is the same price as the standard 28-page version.

  6. I have a question that may come across as snarky, but I definitely don’t mean it that way.

    From the post, sounds like you have to make 2 separate trips to the embassy, and possibly wait twice and ride the cab twice. I’m curious how you decided betweem paying the various expedited fees before you leave, vs spending time on your vacation running errands, which would cut into valuable in country time, and potentially have more chance for unforeseen circumstances (like the holiday closure)

  7. @mangoceviche

    As Joey says above, the fee for additional passport pages started in 2010, so yeah, previously we didn’t have to pay that. USD 82 strikes me as absurdly high.

    I got the 52-page version when I renewed my passport a few years ago as well, and I didn’t even ask for it. I’m presuming that whomever processed it thought it would make more sense since my previous passport had so many inserts. I was very pleased that they did that for me without my asking.

  8. @Ben – I had to add pages to my passport a few years ago too, and I decided to do it at an embassy as well. Even expedited, there’s still a possibility that you won’t have the passport in time for departure. If that happens, you’ll either be stuck at home or pay even more money to change your itinerary.

    I knew that it’d take time out of my trip, but these things made it worthwhile for me, and I’d imagine that they apply to others too:
    1. Embassies and consulates are located in major cities, so chances are that you’ve been there already, played tourist before, and won’t be missing anything.

    2. Since you’re on vacation, you have flexibility in your schedule, meaning that you can avoid rush hour and lunchtime traffic for embassy visits.

    3. You probably have friends/family all over the place, but you’d most likely only be able to see them in the off work hours. So, by going to the embassy in the day, you’re not missing out on those visits.

  9. You can also request that an “emergency” EPDP passport be issued immediately on-site and have it converted to a regular passport when you return home. This costs the same as having a new passport issued and an emergency doesn’t need to actually exist.

  10. @LoneTree – the “E” in EPDP really does stand for “Emergency”, not “Eenconvenience” or “Eh, I don’t feel like waiting for a regular passport.”

  11. @Ben —

    Your question is a good one, and Tennen’s reply basically summarizes our thinking. A few more thoughts:

    1. This is a month-long trip. It’s supposed to be somewhat of an experiment in ‘living’ in a foreign country, not just being a tourist. So part of living is doing errands. Believe it or not, one of our favorite things to do on trips is to go grocery shopping!

    2. Given that we didn’t discover the issue until a few days prior to departure, I don’t think that expediting was even an option. Or it would have been really close!

    3. It didn’t actually take much time out of the day. We were in and out of the embassy within 30 minutes and on our way to Jurong Bird park (to be a tourist!) If we hadn’t had a reason to get up and moving, we would have probably just been slower out of the hotel room.

    4. Tennen’s point about being flexible avoiding peak time is very true. Interestingly, we also met a friend of ours (who was in SG on a business trip and thus working all day) for dinner that night. So it didn’t interfere with that at all.

    5. I think that it’s a bit of a civic (?) experience to visit an embassy. Despite visiting dozens of countries, I had never been to one before. Seems like something everyone should do once. (And obviously I don’t know much about Embassy’s as I thought they were protected by the Secret Service…. so I still have a lot to learn.)

    6. And as Tennen points out, this was our 4th or 5th trip to Singapore, so we didn’t feel a huge need to run around and see things. Mostly this was a ‘decompression stop’ at the start of our trip before continuing on to new places.

    Thanks for the question!

  12. Very interesting comments about the helpfulness of the US Embassy in SG. Obviously adding extra pages is a simple routine request, and it went just fine for us. And as I said, this was my first embassy visit, so I have nothing to compare it to.

    And to everyone pointing out that ‘extra pages used to be free’….. thanks. Why am I always too late for the good ol’ days???? 🙂

  13. Interesting post, thanks. I must say I’d never dreamt that embassies offered this sort of service – I’d only ever heard of emergency passports to replace lost/stolen ones when abroad! I find it disappointing that between the EU and Global Entry I hardly have any stamps in my passport now, but at least it means I’m unlikely to have a page issue!

    Laughed at the 26th Dec comment, this has always been a holiday in the UK, we call it Boxing Day – perhaps it’s our export to you given that Black Friday seems to have been exported to us, despite us not having any Thanksgiving holiday over here!

  14. Also you can get a same day passport if you live near one of the US processing centers. I was traveling internationally a lot right around the time my passport was due to expire and could not afford to part with it for 2 or 3 weeks so I simply made an appointment at the local processing center, showed up with my itinerary for next day/really soon travel (can be an award reservation or fully refundable ticket, etc…) and asked for same day service. I believe there was an extra fee involved but I did avoid round trip FedEx fees so it probably netted out even.

    And yes I did request extra pages.

  15. @some guy-

    As someone who issues EPDPs we leave it up to the applicant to decide that they need a temporary passport. As long as you need one for whatever reason, we’ll issue it. Not being near the embassy/consulate long enough to receive the full validity version is legitimate.

  16. Back in 2009 I had extra pages added when it was free at the London embassy, and they only made me wait about 15 minutes, and I had no appointment either!

    I just renewed the passport, and received the 52 page version, as well as an extra 24 pages (they apparently won’t add 48 pages to the 52 page book). I preferred this as any time without the passport is inconvenient. Thar said, I sent it off the Friday before thanksgiving and received it back the Monday after thanksgiving. I’ve found November and December to be very fast turnaround times over the years.

    We also synchronized our kids and my wife with the same month, and mine expires about 6 months later which is convenient, though they don’t join me as much as your family does.

    Final note, when the new passports come out in the next year or two, extra pages will no longer be a thing, and it’s been rumored that they will stop adding pages to existing passports as well when that happens.

  17. It’s true, starting in 2016, you will no longer be able to add pages to passports. That’s because the new redesigned passport will already be 52 pages instead of the standard 28 pages. You can read about the announcement here: http://www.latimes.com/travel/deals/la-tr-spot-20140921-story.html

    A couple of other notes: U.S. Embassies are guard by the brave men and women of the U.S. Marine Corps, not the Secret Service (which guards the President and other dignitaries). Also contrary to popular belief and Hollywood, U.S. embassies and consulates abroad are NOT sovereign U.S. soil.

    Enjoy the rest of your trip!

  18. Just encountered this situation myself on a multi-destination RTW (errr, US N. Asia via Europe in biz for 90K, thank you very much). Planned a visit to the US Embassy to add pages upon arrival in PEK via online appointment in advance. Seamless and took less than 30 minutes. Staff was great and experience was much less painful than I anticipated.

  19. FYI if you’re a U.S citizen traveling abroad and need assistance with your passport or other travel documents, or any other assistance from a U.S embassy in any country, first contact your member of congress. All elected members of congress have caseworkers for immigration issues faced by their constituents at home and abroad. Explain the problem you’re facing and they will help you secure an appointment ASAP or try to assist from home. We help our constituents in San Francisco with travel problems abroad all the time. Congressional inquiries are given priority by U.S diplomatic posts abroad.

  20. @melmotion–as a consular officer, I would suggest reconsidering before reaching out to your elected members of congress to assist with routine services, as it can slow down the process by up to a week. As stated by previous respondents, if you are in the position of needing “assistance with your passport” (EPDP, extra pages, whatever), particularly if you have imminent travel, you will find the ACS section of nearly every Embassy/Consulate to be very responsive, as the author of the article experienced.

    When I say that it can slow down the process by up to a week, I don’t want it to be misconstrued as intentional–it’s the nature of the paper chase: Day ONE: you write, call, or fax your congressperson, day TWO: a staffer draws up a letter of inquiry to send to the Embassy and sends it through their internal clearance process, day THREE or FOUR: the letter gets emailed, day FIVE: the embassy (who is half a world away) draws up a response and goes through their internal clearance process, day SIX, the response is sent, day SEVEN: your elected representative comes across the response while checking their mail and hands it off to a staffer to reply to your initial inquiry. The response is generally the same as the advice given here: please have Mr. Smith make an appointment or come by the Embassy. These days also do not account for weekends or holidays, which draws it out even longer. It’s far easier to just make the appointment or visit the embassy or consulate yourself.

    One additional note: replacing a minor’s passport is $80 application fee plus $25 execution fee (per http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/passports/information/fees.html#minor_passport) for a total of $105. An adult renewal is $110 (no execution fee unless you lose it).

    Safe travels!

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