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How to replace — and avoid — a damaged passport

If your passport has water damage or rips, you probably need to apply for a new one

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

A small tear in his passport stopped Martin Betch from boarding his recent flight from Barcelona to Geneva. An airline representative told him he had a damaged passport.

Betch pushed back. Shouldn’t the airline accept his passport if it could read his name and see his photo? No, she said. A rip — even a small one — voided his entire passport.

“My passport was exposed to wear and tear during the pandemic, and I neglected to check it before leaving,” remembers Betch, a Swiss photographer who lives in Spain. “I had to file for a reissue and wait three weeks before booking another flight.”

His problem is becoming more common. Many travelers’ passports have been unused during the pandemic. If they’ve been damaged, chances are they might not be valid. Worse, you may not find out about it until you get to the airport or border.

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When is a passport considered damaged?

What constitutes damage vs. normal wear and tear? Does a bend or fold in your passport mean it’s invalid? And what should you do if it is?

The State Department says if your passport is severely damaged, you’ll have to apply for a replacement. Damage “includes water damage, a significant tear, unofficial markings on the data page, missing visa pages (torn out), a hole punch, or other injuries.”

“A passport is damaged by anything that changes the integrity or composition of the passport,” says Rachel Arndt, deputy assistant secretary for passport services.

Normal wear and tear includes bends in your passport from travel, according to the State Department.

“The State Department distinguishes between immaterial and material damage,” Arndt said in an email. “Immaterial damage, such as ordinary wear and tear, a telephone number written on a visa page, or a small tear on a visa page, doesn’t materially change the integrity or composition of the passport. Material damage impairs the integrity or composition of the book, such as the removal of visa pages, obliteration of the photograph, or separation of the cover.”

What do I do if I have a damaged passport?

If your trip hasn’t started yet, you’ll need to go to the nearest passport acceptance facility — usually a post office or public library — or a passport agency.

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The process is similar to applying for a new passport. You’ll need a signed statement explaining the damage, and you’ll have to fill out a new application, called a Form DS-11. The State Department also requires that you show evidence of your citizenship, such as a birth certificate or naturalization certificate, and that you provide photocopies of the evidence. You’ll need to present your ID and a photocopy of your ID, as well as a passport photo, and you’ll have to pay the applicable fee — $130 for adults, plus a $35 execution fee.

What happens if I’m traveling with a damaged passport?

How do customs officials determine whether your passport is damaged? Ganga Raj Thapa has seen the process hundreds of times. At most borders, an official will examine your passport under direct light for signs of damage or mutilation.

“They look for perforations, loose-leaf pages, false entries and blank spaces,” says Thapa, who runs the adventure travel company Nepal Hiking Team. “If signs of mutilation are detected, the passport is turned over to an office of investigations for further analysis.”

If the damage is severe enough, a country might deny you entry. But you might also be able to negotiate your way through customs if the damage is minor.

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Gyan Penrose-Kafka remembers a trip in Central America. The outside of his passport had become frayed in the hot, humid weather and from storing his ID in a money belt.

“The edge of that plastic film delaminated from the paper ever so slightly,” recalls Penrose-Kafka, a business analyst from Seminole, Fla. “I was denied entry into Nicaragua.”

But he couldn’t turn around and return to Honduras, because his visa was no longer valid. After some negotiation, he paid a $20 “fee” to the Honduran border agent to enter the country.

If you don’t want to risk negotiations, you can (and probably should) apply for an emergency passport through the nearest U.S. Consulate or Embassy. The process is similar to the replacement process in the United States, but you can typically get your passport faster. You’ll need to appear in person to get your replacement passport. You can make an appointment online, which will allow you to avoid a lengthy wait.

Can I repair a damaged passport?

Can you try to repair the damage to a passport yourself, like with tape or glue? No, Arndt says. Under federal law, it’s invalid as soon as it’s materially changed. “An attempt to repair it would not restore its validity,” she says.

The good news: If you haven’t used your passport in a while, you’re probably fine.

“It’s rare that just sitting in a drawer would cause damage,” says John Rose, chief risk and security officer for Altour, a travel management company. What if your passport gets wet? A small amount of water shouldn’t harm a passport because of its polycarbonate coating. But if you don’t dry it out, the passport could become mildewed, which would void it.

Tears and cuts in a passport are a “serious issue,” he adds.

How do I avoid a damaged passport?

You can avoid the trouble of replacing your passport by storing it properly.

Find a safe place away from liquids, children and pets. When you’re traveling, keep your passport in a secure compartment in your luggage. If you’re going on a beach vacation or scuba diving, consider putting your passport in a waterproof bag.

The solution, of course, is to get rid of paper passports. Ukraine has created a digital passport that can be read from a smartphone. Several countries, including Australia, New Zealand and Canada, are testing digital passports that use biometric data to verify your identity at the border. You can’t damage an electronic passport.