Passport stamps: How a novelty passport stamp could see you banned from travelling

Got a stamp in your passport collected as a souvenir of a visit to a special place? Perhaps to peace-loving Akhzivland, Israel. Or the one that depicts the famous statues on Chile's Easter Island, issued free of charge at the island's post office?

Or maybe a stamp from one of the research stations scattered across Antarctica. If so, better get yourself another passport, because those stamps might have invalidated your current one.

This is Australian Government property. You've defaced it. That's not allowed.

According to a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson, "It's a requirement that your passport is not altered or tampered with. The only stamps that are recorded in your passport should be visas and those put there by officials working on behalf of the country you're visiting. Your passport is an official document, it's not intended as a record of where you've been. If you want stamps to commemorate your travels a travel diary is more appropriate."

British traveller Tina Sibley didn't think twice when she was offered a stamp in her passport to remember her visit to Machu Picchu in August 2019. Why not? No downside to that surely. But the gods of karma were about to show Sibley the error of her ways.

Six months later, when Sibley, who lives in Spain, tried to board a Qatar Airways flight from Madrid to Thailand to attend a wedding, she was denied boarding on account of the non-official stamps in her passport.

Qatar Airways refused to uplift her and so did Emirates, insisting that the Thai immigration officials would likely deny her entry when she arrived, all on account of those pesky stamps. If that happened, the airline would get a dressing down from Thai authorities for allowing an improperly documented traveller to board a flight to their country. It would also be left to the airline to arrange for her speedy departure from Thailand.

Sibley was eventually forced to delay her travels and get an emergency passport from the British Embassy. Total cost of her misadventure, more than £1000 ($1900), the whole sorry saga documented on her Facebook page. 

Despite what you might think, your passport doesn't really belong to you. You might have paid for it – at outrageous expense if it's the standard Australian item – you probably keep it safely tucked away, but it remains government property.

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This was once pointed out to me in no uncertain terms when I returned to Australia in pre-Smartgate days. I handed over my passport at the immigration desk to be met with a dark look from the woman sitting behind. She pointed to the back cover of my passport. When I checked in for my flight to Sydney, staff at the desk had stuck my baggage stubs to the back of my passport.

"This is Australian Government property," she said, "You've defaced it. That's not allowed."

"It wasn't me," I wanted to tell her, but I kept my mouth shut. Instead I did my best to look contrite and humble because a person sitting behind an immigration desk can make your life colourful and interesting but not in a good way.

My Australian sister-in-law, who lives in Italy, found this out when she grabbed the wrong passport – her daughter's – and boarded a flight to Australia. She got away with it on the way in too, but not on the way out.

The temptation to have these extraneous stamps inserted in your passport might be a response to the fact that passport stamps just aren't as cool and delightful as they once were. Once upon a time if you travelled to five countries in a trip you came back with five stamps in your passport. They were often colourful and whimsical, and they told a little story about the country you visited. I have a terrific passport stamp with a large moose on it from Poker Creek, Alaska, imprinted by US Customs when I crossed from Canada's Yukon Territory.

Passport stamps are still around, but they just aren't as common as they once were. If you enter the Schengen Area on an Australian passport your passport will be stamped on entry and on exit to the area, but not every time you pass through another border within the area.

The advent of digital e-passports makes it much easier for immigration authorities to track where you've been. It's also far more accurate than relying on immigration officials to sift through every page of your passport to check for visits to any sensitive countries, so less need for a passport to serve as a record of travel. It's partly for that reason that Australia's Frequent Traveller Passport with 64 visa pages was discontinued in 2017. Digitised processing means that even those who travel a lot are unlikely to need that many pages in their passport.

So if anyone ever offers you a novelty stamp in your passport, it's "Thanks but no thanks." Or maybe take along an old expired passport for that very purpose.

See also: 'I actually cried': The minor passport issue that can ruin your holiday

See also: The secrets behind Australian passports revealed

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