Are you really you?
In the post-11 September security crackdown, the US imposed a raft of measures to improve its defence of the homeland. Intensified passport security is one important cog in the war against terror, but it doesn't come without hassle.
President George Bush also set up the Department of Homeland Security and more recently, asked Congress to create a new post of national intelligence director. And in response to the commission report that investigated the 9/11 attacks, Bush also announced last week the creation of a national counter-terrorism centre.
Passport security is another prime concern and the US is moving to introduce biometric passports which incorporate digital fingerprints, iris scans or photographs. By the end of 2005, all domestically produced US passports will be biometric.
The US is demanding that anyone who enters the US either has a visa or a biometric passport, but it granted a 12-month reprieve on 9 August to the 27 nations participating in the Visa Waiver Program.
Citizens of these countries can now travel to the US without visas. But under a 2002 law, visas would have been required after 26 October 2004, unless the traveller had a passport with biometric security measures.
State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said Congress extended the deadline for the biometric passports to 26 October 2005, giving the VWP countries time to develop them.
Nevertheless, the State Department maintained the regulation that passports used for travel in the Visa Waiver Program must be machine-readable after 26 October 2004, otherwise travellers will be required to obtain a visa.
The biometric passport will be the second important passport variation to be implemented since the 11 September attacks — the first of which was introduced on 8 April 2002 to incorporate digital photos in all new US passports.
These passports were designed to "minimise the misuse of American passports by criminals, terrorists and others", CNN reported back in April 2002.
Given the fact that many US embassies and consulates abroad did not have the technology to issue the new passports, US expats were warned that passport processing times could lengthen.
And they were not wrong.
Having become accustomed to repeatedly renewing either my passport or one of my children's passports in the past 20 years, it became a familiar formality that I approached with some confidence.
But renewing a US passport has now become not only time consuming, but a challenging and costly process aptly signifying the price of security.
As the US-led war against terror continues, acting Consul General in Amsterdam Jim Gray explains that the current "digitalised version is a safer passport. It’s a better document".
When you submit your passport application and photo in Amsterdam, both are scanned and electronically transmitted to the passport processing authorities in the US.
Within two weeks, the Amsterdam consulate receives the passport by courier and you can pick the passport up at the consulate or have it sent to your home address.
But security costs time and proving that you are an American entails time spent in gathering the evidence to prove you really are who you claim to be.
For example, your checklist for a child’s passport renewal will require the application itself, passports, photos, two parent signatures, parent proof of relationship to child (for example a birth certificate), money (EUR 59.50 for a passport renewal) and the social security number of your child.
And since 31 March, your child has to accompany you to the US Consulate General as well, whether or not the minor is registered at the consulate. The State Department wants to prevent child abduction and this new passport requirement reflects US law.
For those not travelling by public transportation, you can also add to your checklist a chip card for parking. In my case, get up early and drive — depending upon traffic — 90 minutes to two hours before arriving in Amsterdam.
The new US passport photo has also added frustration. It is a 5 by 5cm photo and its size deviates from other European passport photos. The photo therefore has to be made in a studio or by a photo shop which specialises in the larger size.
Puzzled, a Dutch photographer asked me if I was serious about having these studio photos made. Was I aware that studio photos cost more than EUR 50? Did I realise they take a day to develop? Yes, was the answer to all of those questions.
In consulting the US consulate website, I found the closest photo shop catering to the Big Mac of passport photos was about 45 minutes from where I live. So off I went to Rotterdam for photos which cost EUR 15.50, but which were ready within an hour.
"It’s been a standard set up for quite some time", Gray says, explaining that it is the best size. "It is a mass production effort. We are dealing with millions of photos."
Security with a price tag — you can easily run up a bill of EUR 100 for just one passport renewal.
And despite the repeated telephone message that you can find everything on the website, the information from those working at the consulate is also vital.
During the time when passports were made in Amsterdam, I used to hand in the application before 11:30am and pick up the passport in the afternoon.
But a consulate official recently warned me during a telephone conversation that you cannot pick up your passports on the same day. It saved me a trip to Amsterdam.
And while the website of the consulate is the major source of information when it comes to passports, Gray agrees that the information found there is not up to date.
He said the consulate is "overworked and understaffed", admitting that at times people might wonder where the operator actually is. "We do our best, but we are stretched," he says. Gray suggests applicants use email instead of the phone.
And finally, another frustration of the consulate is the building itself. Although a charming 1912 home — complete with a Delft Blue tile fireplace — in the centre of Amsterdam near the Rijksmuseum, Gray says it is too small to house the consulate.
And besides the security fence around the consulate, the war against terror also continues inside the perimeter.
Due to the fact that the public toilets are outside the consulate building itself, going to the WC has become a security issue. If nature calls, a security employee will escort you to the public toilets.
So if you survive all of this — well done! But don't get too content, because the biometric passports will soon make passport renewal even more complicated!
I can hardly wait.
12 August 2004
[Copyright Expatica 2004]
Subject: War against terror, expats, US passports, security