Australia passport renewal delays: Never take your passport for granted

I love my Australian passport. Right now what I love most about it is that it's not due to expire until July 2025.

That gives me three years before I need to attempt to renew it. Given the backlog of passport approvals currently at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I probably should think about putting in my application now.

With processing delays pushing out to 12 weeks and scenes of people lining up outside passport offices in the dark and cold, having it in my hands is a precious thing. Tens of thousands of travellers who let their passports expire during the pandemic or are applying for the first time have been caught without the essential travel document as they attempt to embark upon first overseas trips for more than two years.

I have never taken my passport for granted. In 2001, when I escaped my New York apartment in the aftermath of the planes hitting the World Trade Center four blocks away, the only things I took with me were our family's three passports. It was instinctive. I knew that getting them reissued while overseas was complicated and tedious. But more viscerally, I felt my passport was not merely an identity document, it actually formed part of my identity.

It's full of stamps and visas that are mementos of journeys, which in turn spark memories of people met, great meals, moments of joy or near-disasters. It's like a map of me if I were a location. I would not be able to piece together my biography without it. And by saying "it", I of course mean "them", because the passport office always kindly returns the cancelled passport when you get a new one, knowing its sentimental value.

I have a passport from 1984 that includes the US journalist visa issued to me in Montreal in February 1986 after a dash across the border before our tourist visas expired. I will never forget that trip and the stern border guard who warned us once we left the US we might never be allowed back. We'd set up house in New York and we'd left all our possessions there, but we took the risk anyway. The official at the consulate was so obliging and lovely, I could have kissed him. We made it back to New York, legally.

That passport also includes the visa issued in 1984 for a trip to China for a fashion shoot, which brings back memories of a Beijing in the days of Mao suits and bicycles and a misunderstanding, when we were all arrested for an unknown cultural insensitivity and locked in our van for a few hours before being released. The police confiscated our passports, which was the singularly most terrifying thing of the incident.

There's something so beautiful about the old-fashioned nature of the inky stamps and typewriter impressions on some of the older visas. The passport photos are also fascinating in retrospect. In 1984, my photo is like a glamorous studio shot, with me pouting like Marilyn Monroe. My last portrait was taken in a post office by someone with no camera skills and, as we're now not allowed to smile, I appear rather tense. Which is exactly how I look when I approach any border control, so I guess it's representative.

I've been lucky – or careful – to have never lost a passport (although the very act of writing this makes me fear I've tempted fate.) But recently, arriving home late at night from an international flight, I couldn't find it after I'd unpacked. I felt physically ill (and this was before I knew of the passport office delays.) They're expensive things now and I knew I would need a new one in a hurry, which might have cost me upwards of $500.

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It was after midnight. I called the taxi company and emailed Heinemann Duty Free, where I'd stopped briefly before going through immigration. Everyone I contacted at that hour was very helpful and understanding – testament to the fact that they appreciated the seriousness of the situation.

Agitated and not able to sleep, I picked up the novel I'd taken with me on the plane in the hope reading a few more pages would soothe me. My passport fell out.

According to the Henley Passport Index, the Australian passport is the seventh most powerful passport in the world, allowing us access to 185 visa-free destinations.

But for me, it has always been No 1.

lee.tulloch@traveller.com.au

See also: Good riddance: Digital Passenger Declaration scrapped

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