Today I spent nine (9) (no, that’s not a typo) hours in line to apply for a passport.

What happened was, since the U.S. changed the rules to say everyone’s gotta have a passport, a lot of Americans and Canadians who were used to going back and forth between the countries suddenly needed passports, and the systems are buckling under the strain. (Hmm... I wonder if Mexico’s is as well?)

My passport’s good till July, but I’m traveling a whole bunch and don’t have much time here in Vancouver. Last Monday, April 3rd, was the start of two no-international-travel weeks. I’d heard about the line-ups but had no idea, so I went down there after lunch and got in front of a human being by 3:30. She sent me away because I was applying for an expedited passport but hadn’t brought documents to prove I was traveling. When I told people this story they were astounded, saying the only way to be sure of getting in on any given day was to be waiting at 6AM when the building doors opened.

I had the paperwork by Tuesday noon and went back downtown but the security guys advised against joining the line, saying I’d never get in that day. Wednesday I was in Calgary and Thursday I was real busy. Friday and Monday were government holidays. This morning, the cab picked me up at 5:50 AM.

I was lucky; arriving at 6:07 meant that I got to wait until 11:39, when I actually got into the passport room, inside out of the cold. I brought a folding chair and that turned out to have been smart. I did a bunch of back email and some slides for talks; when the battery got low, I read all of This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin (going to have to write about that book) and the first hundred pages of Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy.

Then I was at the front of the line and got the precious number that they’ll eventually call; mine was in the needs-a-passport-fast sequence, and at 1PM we were advised that it’d be a couple more hours, go get lunch. I did, and when I came back, someone had screwed up, my number had been called long since. They apologized and fixed me up and I was out of there a couple of minutes after three.

While this was unpleasant, it could have been worse. The people in line were pretty wonderful: mutually supportive, watching and sometimes carrying each others’ stuff while they went to get meals and coffee, feed meters, hit the can, whatever. The people at the passport office, when you get to talk to them, were competent and pleasant.

The people I really felt sorry for were the security guards who had to herd the people around and manage the line-up. They were a bunch of geezers who were trying hard to stay courteous but had to deal with people who hadn’t known or whose lives were being seriously fucked up by all this, some of who got seriously bent out of shape.

Presumably, the backlog will eventually get itself under control.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Martin (Apr 11 2007, at 05:39)

I just went through the same process for my wife and I, but the results were more pleasant.

1) I pre-filled the application using the Internet: (it might not apply for fast-lane passport)

2) I went there early (there was a lot of people) at the local bureau (Laval, QC)

3) I did wait for them to check my application, where I did read a lot.

4) Uppon checking, they discovered something I missed. I was allowed to correct it right away, they gave me an extra-fast number because I used the Internet. I was called right away.

5) They promised the passport for the april 11th, I got them the 5th.

6) I was happy. :-)


From: Tim O'Brien (Apr 11 2007, at 09:52)

Ugh. Sounds perfectly horrible, maybe it is time to offer voluntary RFID implants for people uninterested in maintaining such old world documentation.


From: Mark W (Apr 11 2007, at 09:59)

Most of my family's passports expired in March. I went to Sinclair Centre to check it out because I have heard how bad it was. Saw the lineup and decided to mail in the application because the line was too long and I don't need to travel until Summer.

I cannot figure out why the passport office have to make people wait in line just to get a number, then wait a bit more to get processed. Why can't they give the number out at 9am? Even if they cannot process everybody they should have an assessment on how many they can process a day with the understanding that the number works only for that day. I actually posted a comment on the passport Canada website but of course I get no reply.


From: Prolific Programmer (Apr 11 2007, at 10:31)

I think going from the US to Mexico legally has always required a passport.


From: Bob Aman (Apr 11 2007, at 11:56)

Interesting. I just got my passport in preparation for my trip to Kenya in May. In the US (apparently our passport processing system is under strain right now too?), passport application is as simple as going to the post office with a wad of cash ($200 in my case) in hand and various forms of ID. The nearest post office that dealt with passports had a single person for the entire building, and just two people in line to mail stuff. They took my photo, had me fill out some paperwork, stuck my application in the express mail envelope, and I was done. Aside from the part where I had to make two attempts because the first attempt was during their lunch break, I think it took no more than 5 or 10 minutes. The main reason that it's so short, obviously, is because all of the time-consuming work is done off-site at a passport processing center somewhere and then they just mail you back your passport.


From: BWJones (Apr 11 2007, at 12:41)

@Prolific Programmer

In the past, going from US to Mexico and visa versa has actually been trivially easy with no passport required (even after getting chased through the desert by corrupt federales, but that is another story). I have not tried to cross the border by car in a few years though, so perhaps that has changed... I somehow doubt it though.


From: BF (Apr 11 2007, at 13:50)

As a Candian living in the US I had to renew my passport by mail in February. It took 6 weeks from the day I fedexed off the application until the new passport arrived by courier. Five years ago it only took about a week and a half. So I'd say there definitely is a crunch on ...


From: John Cowan (Apr 11 2007, at 15:13)

I (a U.S. citizen) had a similar experience to Bob Aman's two years ago, except that I skipped the post office entirely. I went to a travel agency and paid slightly more with a credit card, but no standing on line at all. (Yeah, I live in New York City.)

The only glitch was that the agency couldn't take passport-grade photographs, but the photo development place across the street could and did. That cost an extra five minutes or so.

I also paid a hurry-up-quick fee, and got the passports sent back by overnight mail. All this was necessary because I had lost my non-driver's license (yeah, I still live in New York City), and I needed to make it to Extreme Markup Languages.


From: Mark (Apr 11 2007, at 15:20)

I work next to the passport office here in Ottawa. Every morning I see the line up for passports. The current wait time for non-expedited passports is several months (yes months).

From the looks of things the lines are getting shorter. You'll still wait most of the day but at least people are getting turned away as much.


From: Dngloz (Apr 13 2007, at 12:31)

hehe even the servers cant handle the traffic, this is what it states on the website "High traffic is significantly increasing the systems response time. We encourage you to use the system during off-peak hours, on weeknights from 9 pm to 6 am (EST) and on weekends."


From: Ryan Lowe (Apr 13 2007, at 13:34)

Definitely a stark contrast to what I experienced last September before the US passport requirement was announced. I needed a passport very quickly because I was invited to a conference in Vegas at the last minute...

On the advice of my friends I filled out the application online ahead of time and at the passport office in downtown Ottawa (around 10am) I barely had my ass in the seat in the waiting area before my number was called. Others in the waiting room gave me some minor stink-eye as I strolled out after about 5 minutes. I had my expedited passport less than a week later in time for the trip and I was very impressed.

It's too bad there's such a mad rush to get passports now. Does applying online beforehand still make much of a difference, or is it all a wash?


From: ForeclosureFish (Apr 13 2007, at 16:26)

I thought my 45 minute ordeal for a passport was bad, but 9 hours? That's about 8 hours and 45 minutes too long. And there's no reasonable explanation for needing passports to travel between Canada and the US, when there's never been a major issue before.


From: Chris Beck (Apr 13 2007, at 22:23)

Heyo, just got my passport too. Went to the passport office in downtown Montreal (after having downloaded the from from the net). Waited 2 hours. Got my passport in the mail in 2 weeks. This was not expedited.


From: Al (Apr 13 2007, at 23:31)

You should have gone to Richmond. The passport office there is much less busy and the difference in wait time should make up for the travel time.


From: Yule Heibel (Apr 14 2007, at 11:05)

Hi Tim, I came across your blog when my husband pointed me to your interesting post about Dick Dale ("Misirlou").

Re. passports: I live in Victoria right now, and the line-up for the passport office downtown is unbelievable. What I find striking is that so many people vehemently resent the fact that ANYONE dares to criticise the government for this mess, and instead blames "laggards" and "stupid" people for not being organised enough to apply for passports "in time." But you have to wonder just how much "time" you're supposed to allow for getting a vital document. The people who blame the citizens/ consumers think that you should apply for a new passport at least 6 months before your old one expires. Since Canadian passports are only valid for 5 years, however, that's an onerous expectation, IMO. A Canadian passport costs over $100 (with taxes) but it expires in 5 years, vs the US passport which is valid for 10 years. (Yet it's not twice as expensive.)

If you're interested, the local paper (Times-Colonist) finally ran an editorial criticising passport procedures, and included a string of letters written to the editor, too. Reading some of the letters, I can't help but get the impression that mailed in applications were expedited not in order received, but on the basis of how soon the person needed their passport. There are a couple of horror stories of people sending their documents in early, without hearing anything back in months.

The editorial, "Passport debacle a national disgrace" in today's Times-Colonist (April 14) (I'm going to use a tiny url -- the original is way long):

and some letters so far, "Letters from readers about passport woes":

Oh, final thing: I don't know if Vancouverites have started doing this, but Victoria's large-ish homeless population was tapped by some intrepid applicants. Street people were "hired" to stand/ sit in line while applicants went on errands or to work -- sounds like an interesting, creative, possibly entrepreneurial idea. But this in turn raised a stink because "respectable" people didn't want to stand cheek-to-jowl on the freezing pavements with vagrants and drug addicts.

Or perhaps, with his face already being rubbed into the passport failings, the nice & docile Canadian citizen was too obviously reminded of yet another government shortfall (providing affordable housing, dealing with the mentally ill, addressing drug addiction, etc. etc.)...?


From: Josh (Apr 14 2007, at 17:16)

I'm a Canadian citizen living in the U.S. (Oregon) and realized too late that by mailing my passport application Feb 20th to Gatineau that they wouldn't even open it until around the time I need to travel (May 1st).

I'm now considering driving to the passport office in person in Vancouver (only a 20-hour round trip!) and applying for an urgent/expedited passport. That seems to be the only possible way to be able to travel (going to Peru).

The only thing is that I don't know for sure is if they will even accept my application (form PPTC 140 as opposed to PPTC 044) for processing. Does anybody have any idea? I've been trying like mad to call the passport office but the lines are so jammed I can't even get put on hold. I'd hate to drive all that way, wait in line for hours, just to be turned away.


From: First In Line (Apr 18 2007, at 08:51)

Sinclaire Centre - I arrived this morning at 5:15am. The line up is now outside only so bring blankets. There were about 100 people in the line. The first 5 arrived at 10pm last night. They were homeless people who were selling thier spot. The people after them arrived at 3am. I paid the first guy in line $60. When I got to the wicket I showed proof of travel (May 3rd) and paid and extra $10. They told me to come pick up my ticket on May 2nd. After waiting outside for 2 1/4 hours, I was in by 7:30, out by 7:40.

May it be this 'easy' for all of you.


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