It is feasible — with a little luck and some manners — to get a very rapid Australian passport renewal. Here's how I did it, and the larger lesson it taught me about customer service and planning.
Last Tuesday, I was due to fly to Singapore for the launch of the LG G3. To get the necessary disclaimer out of the way, I flew there as a guest of LG.
Although that disclaimer was very nearly not necessary, as I came very close to not flying out at all.
I'd done my preflight checks. Bag packed for what was in fact just an overnight stay? CHECK. Chargers and international plugs? CHECK. Passport? CHECK...ish.
Except, as it turned out, not checked nearly closely enough. On the way out to the airport, I checked in at Smart Traveller just to make sure there wasn't any aspect of Singapore I wasn't thinking of, only to spot the following:
Singapore authorities require all travellers (including those transiting Singapore) to have at least six months validity remaining on their passports.
Now, there was a thing, because as chance would have it, I only had four months remaining on my current passport. Checking around online just before I hit the airport suggested that while being a day or so short of six months might just be ignored, larger periods were likely to see me get knocked back.
I checked the passport office web site to see about renewals, only to see that the advised minimum period for a passport renewal is 48 hours.
I was pretty sure that I was stuffed before I'd even started, but I headed in, fearing the worst.
I didn't even make it onto my scheduled 11:15am flight, because the airline staff picked up on this as soon as they saw my passport. Clearly it happens on a regular basis, and I was just the most recent under-prepared traveller they'd seen.
Their advice was that it is possible to get a same day renewal within Sydney "with a little luck". They rebooked me on a 6pm flight with an eye to seeing if I could indeed secure the necessary paperwork quickly enough. There was also a 3pm flight, but that was a very long shot indeed. The 6pm flight would mean (more or less) that I'd have to give up on sleep for the trip, but these things happen — and as a parent I'm well-versed in surviving sleep deprivation.
The airline advice seemed to contradict what the official web site said, so I called the information line to get the full idea of what was feasible. There the staff told me that I would indeed need an interview, and no slots were available at the central Sydney office today. The earliest they could see me, according to the calendar was Thursday.
At this point it all seemed rather moot, as I was due to land back in Sydney on Thursday. The information person suggested I could head to the Sydney office and ask, but that they couldn't guarantee same day delivery.
So that's what I did, keeping solidly in mind one simple rationale.
This was all my fault. Not the fault of the airline staff, or the fault of the passport staff, or anyone else. It was entirely on me. I kept that central in my head throughout that day, because when you're stressed it's all too easy to lash out at anyone nearby, which rarely helps.
Keeping my cool proved decisive in the end, because when I got to the passport office, I calmly explained my dilemma. They stated that indeed, a passport could take as long as 48 hours to process, but equally "may" be printed in as little as three to four hours. I'd have to wait and see.
I wasn't alone. From listening in around me to people there were at least half-a-dozen folk stung by not having quite enough time left on their passports, including at least one couple who were meant to be on the same flight as me.
Some of them were furious and ranting and raving, and while I could commiserate, feeling hideously stressed myself, I tried to stay calm.
I got lucky, because a scheduled interview appointment didn't show, and they agreed to see me. I explained my issue, showed documentation showing the business nature of the trip — a matter is more likely to be expedited if you have either business or compassionate reasons — and paid the fee for a rapid passport renewal. For an ordinary passport that's $244 for adults along with a $108 priority processing fee.
Again, ouch, because I wasn't entirely planning on spending $352 that day, although the reality there is that it's really only the $108 that was stung for on the spot. I would have needed to renew my passport by September anyway, and it's unlikely passport fees are going down any time soon.
I then had some serious time to sit, sip coffee and wait. Not entirely wasted time — I dealt with some correspondence and wrote a few short pieces while waiting — and then at 1pm went to check if a new passport was available. The Sydney office closes at 4pm, with 1pm being the earliest possible, and I figured I'd check each hour, again politely.
I was in luck — a fresh passport was waiting for me, and there was time to dash to the airport and make the 3pm flight, with a slight diversion at immigration, because it turns out that passports printed 30 minutes earlier are rarely in computer systems quite that quickly. Having verified that it was a genuine document, I dashed onto my flight — just.
So what's the practical upshot of all of this for other travellers?
There's a couple of things. For a start, it absolutely pays to do your checking upfront when it comes to travel. I have absolutely nobody but myself to blame for not doing so.
I can't say that the folks ranting and raving absolutely weren't being served, but I did notice, as you'd expect, that when you treat people with a decent level of respect, it's returned to you. The passport office staff were polite and friendly to me in response, whereas their body language with the shouting crowd was, shall we say, significantly more formal.
tl;dr version: It can be done, but you have to be both lucky and polite. Remember whose fault such a problem usually is. Also, before you travel, read all the rules regarding travel to your destination. Every last one.
Lifehacker Australia contributor Alex Kidman suspects he's ready for the next season of The Amazing Race after all that running around. The Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.