Passport advice for first time travellers to the UK and Europe

For many Americans, a vacation abroad in England or Europe is a once in a lifetime experience. Unlike other parts of the world, we don’t tend to get much vacation leave from our employers, which makes long haul travel difficult. In fact, there’s no minimum statutory entitlement in the USA to vacation leave: we’re the only developed country that doesn’t require employers to provide paid vacation leave.

By comparison, the rest of the world provides generous paid vacation leave allowances. A 2016 study by Glassdoor Economic Research compared American vacation leave entitlements to countries in Europe, and not surprisingly, there was a sharp divide between the USA and Europe.  For example, in Sweden, France and Denmark, employers are required to give their employees 25 days of paid vacation leave every year (in addition to paid public holidays).  For the rest of the EU, the minimum requirement is 20 days. In contrast, in the USA, the number of days offered is left as part of the compensation package negotiated between the employer and employee. The average number of paid vacation days for American workers is 10 days, according to a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

As a result, many of us don’t have the need for a passport. Our driver license is sufficient for domestic air travel. But if you’re travelling overseas, you need to make sure that you have a valid passport otherwise you’ll get turned away and your vacation will be ruined.

In this article, we’re going to give you some helpful advice about getting your first passport for an upcoming trip to England or Europe.

But first, some interesting facts about passports

Did you know the following?

  • The earliest reference to a travel document is in the Bible. In the Book of Nehemiah, a Persian official was granted a travel document from the King, requesting “the governors beyond the river” to grant him safe passage on his travels through Judea.
  • The first actual passport was issued in England in the 15th century by King Henry V.  Today in the UK, passports are still issued the Queen of England (and the Queen of England doesn’t need a passport when she travels abroad).
  • Citizens of Japan have the world’s most powerful passport, as recently reported in the Henley 2018 Passport Index.  Japanese citizens can enter 180 countries without needing to obtain a visa.  The least powerful passports are from Afghanistan and Iraq  which allow visa free travel to only 30 countries. The United States passport comes in at equal 5th (along with Ireland, Canada and Switzerland), allowing visa free travel to 176 countries — this means you don’t need to apply for a visa if you’re visiting the United Kingdom or most of Europe.

Getting your first passport, or renewing your existing passport

If you’re travelling to the UK, your passport must be valid for the entire duration of your stay.  If you’re a frequent traveller to the UK, you can enrol in the Registered Traveller Service, which will allow you to use the UK and EU entry lanes or the ePassport gates, which will save you lots of time at the UK border.

If you’re travelling to Europe, then your passport must be valid for at least three months beyond your intended departure date. So make sure to check the expiration date of your passport before traveling. Think ahead. Plan. And if you need to renew your passport do it early so there’s no mad rush at the last minute.

Image of an American Passport

The US State Department provides a handy guide about how to apply for your first passport:

  • Fill out the appropriate DS-11 form;
  • Bring evidence of your US citizenship;
  • Show ID;
  • Bring passport photos;
  • Calculate the fees;
  • Submit your application.

You’ll need to make an appointment and have your application processed in-person. Passport applications cannot be done through the post.

Getting passport photos

Many major retailers such as CVS and Walgreens offer a passport photo service. Although you can in theory do you own photos, it’s better to have them done by a trained specialist as the photos need to be a precise size and have your head and neck positioned in the right way.  A wrong photo means your passport application will get rejected and you’ll need to start all over again.

But even when you get professionally taken passport photos, it doesn’t guarantee that your actual passport photo will look like you, as this poor lady from Texas recently discovered.

Apply early to get your passport: don’t leave it until the last minute

Processing times vary, and it can take up to eight weeks for your passport application to be processed. As at the time of updating this article (June 2018) the processing time for routine service is four to six weeks.

If you’re in a rush, you can pay extra for an expedited service, but even it can take up to three weeks.

Keeping your passport safe

Your passport is a very important legal document. Treat it like your Smartphone. Keep it safe and secure at all times. You should:

  • Make several copies of your passport. Take a couple of copies with you on your vacation, leave one copy with your family and scan one copy and email it to yourself (that way, if you lose your passport, you’ll have a hardcopy of it, or a softcopy you can access in your email);
  • Lock it up in your hotel safe, or at least hide it out of sight;
  • Hide it from public view when you’re out and about. Don’t keep it in your back pocket or you might find it’s easily snatched by a pickpocket;
  • Protect it during your travels. Don’t just throw it in your bag. Keep it safe and secure in a travel wallet;
  • Know what to do if you lose your passport. If you lose it when you’re overseas, you’ll need to get it replaced before you can return back to the USA (you can’t return to the USA without a brand new passport): contact the nearest US embassy or consulate for assistance.  It’s a good idea to find the address and phone number of the US embassy or consulate in the countries you’ll be visiting and save them into your phone. Having adequate travel insurance will cover the costs incurred in replacing your passport. While you’re at it, consider getting a local SIM Card for your phone to avoid having to pay expensive international roaming costs if you need to call the embassy or your travel insurer. The UK & Europe SIM Card from My UK SIM Card gives lots of fast data, minutes and texts.