Question: My girlfriend lost her passport on March 17 on a United Airlines flight. Someone in United's customer service team called on April 10 and left me a voicemail saying they had it. I accidentally deleted the voicemail. Since then she has called multiple times and sent emails to the customer service team. Is there any way you can help?
Answer: Help find out what happened, yes. Help get the passport back? Probably not.
When you lose a passport — and about 325,000 were reported lost or stolen last year, according to the U.S. State Department — an airline will try to find the owner, and United did. United rep Charles Hobart said it contacted Sudolsky's girlfriend (the ill-starred phone call) but, not hearing back, probably sent the document to the State Department, which is proper procedure.
From there, the State Department probably destroyed it. “We have a very expensive machine that chops [the passport] into tiny little pieces,” said Brenda Sprague, deputy assistant secretary of State. Because passports contain metal, that must be one tough machine. Sprague said, “I don't go near the thing — it scares me.”
It's not as scary as a U.S. passport without its rightful owner. A passport “is the finest form of identification there is,” Sprague said. Because passports now are more difficult to tamper with, “most passport fraud is impostor fraud,” she said. “If you lose it and it gets in the wrong hands, they [the bad guys — or gals] will attempt to sell it to someone who looks like you.”
The first thing to do when you can't find your passport (and you're home, not on the streets of a foreign country) is nothing … except conduct a vigorous search. (Abroad, you should immediately contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.)
“One piece of advice I would give you if you misplace your passport — I would strongly recommend you look very, very hard for it before you call,” Sprague said. “Go through your suitcase, underwear drawer, and make sure it's really lost, because once you report it lost, the door closes. We frequently get phone calls saying, ‘I found it!' If it's longer than 24 hours, there's no way we can pull that information back.” Your passport will be canceled, and you will have to apply for a new one.
The good news? “There's no library fine,” Sprague said. In other words, you won't be punished if you lose your passport, but “you do have to pay for it to be replaced.” (If you continually lose your passport and have to have it replaced, the State Department may want a word [or more] with you.)
Between 13 and 14 million passports are expected to be issued this year, which may represent a slight increase from the previous year. Processing time, if all goes well, is four to six weeks. Sprague credited the opening of a San Diego Passport Agency with smoothing the process for Californians. That agency, opened in 2011, joined San Francisco and Los Angeles. The Los Angeles agency is at 11000 Wilshire Blvd. (at Veteran Avenue), Suite 1000. You also can go to libraries, post offices or other locations that process passports. For info on California places near you, go to www.lat.ms/V2p1tY. Go to www.travel.state.gov for information about the documentation you'll need (including rules on photographs) as well as fees and other rules pertaining to such issues as child custody.
[For the record, 1:45 p.m. March 4: An earlier version of this post mentioned Passport Day, which allows renewal or application of passports without an appointment. But Passport Day, which had been set for March 9, has been canceled because of federal budget cuts. Some facilities may still be accepting applications/renewals on that day. For a list, go to www.lat.ms/V2p1tY, but check with the facility before you go.]
Have a travel dilemma? Write to email@example.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.