Guest Blogger: Laurel Lee

The Passport and the Bureaucrat
by Laurel Lee

Laurel Lee, her husband and three children moved to Basel from Needham, Mass. four months ago.

We needed to renew our son’s passport and get him a passport card, a smaller passport-equivalent document easier for frequent travel. The US embassy in Bern is about 1.5 hours away from Basel by train and tram. The counter for passport processing is only open for passports on non-US (and non Swiss) holidays from 9 to 11:30 am.

Two days before we decided to go, I launched an all out search for the passport photos that I had taken in the US in preparation for this event. I finally found them as well as the official documents I would need for the passport and passport card fee. I was ready.

Entering the embassy is more rigorous than flying from Logan Airport post 911. No purses, bags, backpacks or cell phones are allowed. You go through an initial screening room and cannot enter until the previous party has cleared security. Once admitted you must be screened as at the airport with the addition of having a wand passed over you even if you didn’t trigger the first metal detector. Once you complete this process, you must do it again on the lower level before you can take a number to wait for counter assistance.

My husband and passed through security and I finally had our number called. We approached the first representative who examines documents to make sure they are in order. She cleared us and sent us to the cashier around the corner where you ring a bell, await the metal shutter to ascend and pay the $120 fee. I took my carefully prepared US money out of my file and happily handed it to the Swiss cashier. She looked at the $100 bill, twisted her mouth and said: “I can’t possibly take that: It’s too old!”


“What do you mean?”

“It’s a security risk, I won’t be able to get rid of it,” she says.

I was now pissed. This wasn’t some torn and muddied bill. It was a perfectly acceptable US hundred dollar bill.

My husband, sensing my growing anger, hissed behind my back “Take a deep breath!” He then produced some crumpled Swiss francs, which I handed to the clerk. She looked them over, looked at me, and finally processed the fee. Rumpled francs trump senior dollars. Is this monetary ageism, or just nationalism?

We are now sent back to wait for our number to be called for final processing. This next representative is friendly and predicts that we will have the new passport in one week. I think, “Wow, that’s fast, but maybe the embassy gets special privileges.” We say “thanks” and leave the embassy.

Too many times
I am not too concerned when the first two weeks pass with no new passport, I’ve never heard of a (non-expedited) passport arriving that quickly. However, by 3+ weeks, I go to the US website to find out where things are. The site tells me it was mailed on 11/7/10 (doubtful since it was a Sunday). Finally, I call to the US and am informed, “It was sent to a Virginia address.” We have never lived in VA. I give them the benefit of the doubt and think perhaps they send them from some central VA address to the embassy.

Just to get clarification, I send an email to the embassy. When I receive no response by the next afternoon, I call. Phone calls are only taken in the afternoons: Apparently they cannot do both counter work and answer phone calls simultaneously.

When I get a representative, he asks for our name and tells me that they’ve had some delays in New Orleans and that it might arrive at the embassy in the next few days after which it will be sent in the self addressed stamped envelope we provided. When I return to my computer later that same afternoon, I have an email stating that they actually have the passport but they are holding it per our (non-existent) request to await the passport card.

In the past 24 hours, I’ve been told it’s been sent to VA, it’s been delayed and will come in a few more days, and that it’s been there for “awhile” awaiting the other document. I point out in a reply email that it’s not clear which one of these statements is true but if it’s the last one, to put it in the mail ASAP.

Our son’s passport arrived on November 11th (a US holiday) by registered mail. The passport card, well, who knows when we’ll see it? Does anyone speak bureaucratese?

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  • David  On November 24, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    Sounds like customer service training at Comcast University.

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