A date with disaster: how your passport can ground your travel plans

Visa regulations or a passport that's about to expire could hamper your holiday plans. Make sure your documentation is in order before making plans to travel.

A simple oversight in documentation can lead to great inconvenience for a traveller. iStock photo
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If you have not already done so, chances are you and the family are about to pack your suitcases and front up at the airport with your passports ready for some summer stamp action.

Amid all the excitement of a trip back home or an adventure farther afield, and with hundreds of thousands of travellers expected to pass through the UAE this weekend, there are bound to be travellers who will be caught out when it comes to the amount of time they have left on their passports or who are unaware of their destinations' visa rules.

While entry requirements differ according to each country and the passport you hold, it is always advised to check what these are in advance. This can be done a number of ways but the easiest is via the internet, or by checking with the travel agent you booked through, or the airline you are travelling with.

Often if you are booking your trip through an agent, they will check the necessary details for you, and even help with visas should they be required. When it comes to airlines and airports, most will not take responsibility for any documentation hiccups you may encounter along the way.

Sandi McGuinn, a UAE travel agent for Travel Counsellors in Abu Dhabi, says arranging travel should be more than just booking the flights and hotels. “In order to make sure our clients are able to travel as planned, at the earliest opportunity we check passport validity – most countries require at least six months from the date of entry – and advise on health and visa entry requirements,” says McGuinn.

A simple oversight in documentation can lead to great inconvenience, she says.

“A passport that is expiring in a month or two can mean a client is denied boarding by their airline or cruise ship.”

McGuinn goes the extra mile by sending out reminder e-cards to clients, letting them know when their passports are due for renewal.

Travel websites such as Expedia and Orbitz mention passport expiry restrictions but there is no notification or alert to warn passengers of possible problems before they arrive at the airport. Most airlines, including Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways to name a few, put the onus on the passengers, saying it is their responsibility to ensure their documentation is valid.

“We encourage all guests to be familiar with the visa requirements of the countries/regions they are travelling to,” the Etihad website reads. “Please check with your travel agent or visit the respective embassy’s website for more information.”

The sentiment is echoed on the Abu Dhabi International Airport’s official web page: “Passengers should ensure their passport is valid for the duration of the trip,” it says. “Some countries will only allow you entry if your passport is valid for six months or more. Visa, transit and entry requirements differ from country to country and can be changed with little or no notice.”

Dubai resident Katherine Raso found out the hard way just how tough the authorities can be when she was refused entry on a flight to Asia this year.

“I went to the airport to get on a flight to Singapore and was told that since my passport expires within six months I could not get on the flight as Singapore would not let me enter the country,” Raso says. The public relations professional holds a Canadian passport and was left confused, and ended up missing a friend’s birthday party. “I was devastated; I had to call my friend and tell her I couldn’t make her birthday,” she says. “I planned the trip myself, and booked it. Nobody [at the airline] ever flagged it even though they require a birth date and [passport] expiry date.”

Despite trying to fast-track a renewal through the Canadian consulate, Raso was forced to cancel her flight, and foot the bill for the last-minute changes she then had to make to her ticket.

“I asked a number of people, and they were not aware of the six-month rule – Americans, Canadians, British,” she says.

“The rule is in place so that if the unexpecting traveller needs to stay for a period up to six months, his/her passport would be valid to leave the country,” claims the US Passport Help Guide website.

Mohammed Shafeeque, an immigration liaison officer for a company in Dubai, reaffirms this, saying the reasoning is so that countries can avoid people overstaying their visas. “This is a global requirement – it depends on the country’s visa validity requirements. There are some countries such as South Korea that require only three months,” he says.

“For example, a passenger may travel to a country in the capacity of a visit for tourist, business or medical treatment reasons. If the visitor’s passport expires, many countries’ embassies cannot renew the passport since the traveller does not have a valid permit. In this situation, the country will be forced to allow illegal stays.”

In order to avoid the sort of situation Raso recently experienced and to prevent overstay issues, the British government recently published a special passport newsletter.

“The British embassies in Abu Dhabi and Dubai are urging British nationals in the UAE to keep their passports safe and check their validity before organising travel,” it read, advising anyone who needs to apply for a replacement passport to do so with plenty of time to spare.

“It will take at least six weeks from the time the passport office receives your documents to it being delivered back to you. Remember to check children’s passports too as they are only issued for five years.” While passport validity is something everyone should be aware of and keep an eye on, it is not always this that catches travellers out. The number of pages you have left in your passport can also be grounds for travel refusal too, as can damaged or worn documents.

Travellers from the UAE have reported arriving in some countries with one or less than one full page left in their passport and being forced to wait for hours at immigration, until an official reluctantly grants them entry. Some have also experienced difficulty when presenting a passport that is torn, ripped or that has been through the washing machine.

Some countries require foreign passports to have two to four blank pages, so it is always best to check the status of that in advance. Another essential pre-travel check is whether you can get a visa on arrival at your destination, or whether you need to apply for one before you leave the UAE.

Shafeeque says: “If you are planning on getting an on-arrival visa, then you must make sure the airline will allow you entry to that particular country.”

And finally, keep in mind your currency needs. Some countries require you to have the local currency for purchasing a visa, while others will happily take foreign currency. As for general advice on whether it is better to change money before leaving the UAE, Errol Fonseca head of retail, Travelex Middle East, Africa and India, says: “It is always better for customers to exchange their money before they depart as exchange rates offered to tourists at their destination are usually unfavourable. “We advise our customers to at least take enough foreign currency to cover the cost of paying for necessities upon their arrival, such as their taxi ride from the airport and drinks.”

So if you are putting the final touches to your big trip away, do not forget to check the dates on your documents. Passport and visa requirements are ever-changing, so if in doubt, check with the consulate or embassy of the country which you're travelling.