For those coming here from the Yahoo! Travel article that transpired from this, I ask that you read my personal post before commenting. I did not write the Yahoo! article nor was I compensated for it. Below you will find my personal account of the incident and feelings about it. No matter how often you travel, there’s always room to learn something new!
As I write this I’m sitting on the plane shaking. I’ve just experienced a traveler’s worst (non life threatening) nightmare: getting denied entry into a country. And having to fly back home on the same flight I came over on.
Yes, you read that right.
I’d been planning my trip to Curaçao for a year. My friends Hillary, Tim and I were uber excited for four days of snorkeling, hiking, paddle boarding and tons of fruity drinks with little umbrellas. Tim was meeting us from Detroit, while Hillary and I were flying from New York City. We giggled the entire flight, dreaming about poolside lounging, cute boys in bathing suits and azure warm waters lapping on our skin.
What I got was something completely different. Somehow, I managed to get through JFK International Airport using a passport that was, unknown to me, invalid. While I probably should have known what an invalid passport looks like, I feel TSA and JetBlue definitely should have. Multiple airport officials looked at the document — seeing the two hole punches that meant it was invalid — and let me board my flight abroad.
Why The Passport Hole Punches?
The reason for the two hole punches was that I had recently received a new passport. There was nothing in plain English in the document that said invalid, so I had no idea (might I suggest a giant bold black stamp that says INVALID?). I’d booked the trip months before with the old passport and, since it wasn’t expired, I’d assumed it was still valid and it was the one I needed to use. I also wanted to save room in the new one for future stamps since I travel so much.
An Unwelcoming Greeting Into Curacao (To Say The Least)
Curaçao Immigration did not want to hear my sob story. I’d had happened to take a photo of the new passport with my phone and showed them trying to plead. I asked if there was some kind of fine one could pay for having a non-expired but invalid passport, but there was not.
Talk about passport problems.
What made the situation even more upsetting was that Hillary and Tim were both friends through me and had never met each other in person or really talked before. My luggage and wallet were snatched from me as the immigration officer shouted at me to “c’mon, let’s go!” I quickly rattled off my parent’s home phone number (so Hillary could let them know the situation since I wasn’t being allowed a call) and Tim’s cell (so she could find the stranger she’d now be rooming with) and trudged along through a sea of pitying eyes. I’m sure they were all wondering what I could have possibly done wrong to deserve such a thing.
In my head I went back and forth from kicking myself (why didn’t I grab the other passport just in case??) to frustration with the passport renewal (why did they use a hole punch instead of a stamp or a note that says “invalid” on it?!?) to disturbance (how was it so easy for me to get through JFK with an invalid document?!!).
The entire situation was upsetting and frustrating and I feel could have been avoided if the US Bureau of Consular Affairs didn’t assume I spoke hole punch.
“Oh! You’ll also need to pay a $100 fine once you get to JFK!” shouted a Curaçao Airport employee, almost gleefully, at my already tear-strung face. FML.
A Sad Departure
Walking onto the plane was just as embarrassing as walking out of the airport through immigration. Eyes of anxious passengers eager to take off — held up due to me — and the sight of staff fluttering about trying to find space for my bag and a seat for my tan-less butt stung hard.
As the plane took off from the Caribbean island I couldn’t bear to even look down for the aerial view as I normally do, instead just focusing on trying not to cry all over the just-off-honeymoon couple snuggling up next to me, or the family of giggling children who maybe just visited their first Caribbean island behind my seat.
Usually these scenes would have made me smile, but in that moment I wanted to vomit on everyone.
The four-hour flight, not surprisingly, felt way longer than it really was. The mix of anger, defeat, nausea and anxiety over whether Hillary and Tim were getting along was not a fun combo. As it was the holidays and I don’t exactly make six figures as a travel blogger I was also dreading the impending fine and possible interrogation at JFK, not exactly known for its welcoming nature.
Questions At JFK
There was some trouble at the kiosks where you get your customs form and take your entry photo; as in, my passport would not scan. As I was trying to avoid paying a potential fine I continued to try to get the machine to work, though I already knew it wouldn’t. Then, something alarming happened: a Customs official came over to help me with my passport, handled it, opened it to the cover page, saw the hole punches, browsed the pages and then told me she couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t scanning.
So basically nobody in JFK knows the rules that hole punches mean the passport is no longer valid…but I’m supposed to?
I was sent to another Customs official, who recognized the punches, which was reassuring but also nerve-wracking.
“How did you get through security and board the airline without a valid passport?”
My thoughts exactly.
This was followed by an interview with Homeland Security who, like the Customs official before him, sided with me and persuaded me to file official complaints with JetBlue and the TSA — and didn’t charge me a fine, which ended up sadly being the highlight of my trip to Curacao. JetBlue offered to fly me back to Curacao the next day but there were no flights for another four days. But they did give me a $100 travel credit.
I have since followed up with JetBlue with a formal complaint. As for the TSA, I called their headquarters (866-289-9673) and, after being transferred four times and being on the phone for 40 minutes was told that they were sorry this happened, but it’s really the airline’s fault and the issue is really with fliers being given back their invalid passports and being in possession of them from the start. Also, and I quote the man I spoke with on the phone:
“Hole punches? I’m not familiar with the hole punches.”
By now you probably think I’m a big idiot (again, I admit to my fault in this, as well) or pity me. Either way, I hope you learn from my mistake and avoid having your own passport problems. When ordering a new passport, the old one becomes invalid — even if it’s not expired — immediately upon receiving the new one even (i.e. you cannot continue to use it through to its expiration date). Just because you make it through JFK’s security and your airline staff allows you to board still does mean you’re in the clear, apparently, to enter another country. Remember this. A faux pas like this ends up being stressful, costly and awkward, to say the least.
On the bright side, the Curacao trip was one I’d won in an Instagram contest, so for me personally there wasn’t too much money lost aside for about $150 in airline fees and $100 in cabs to and from the airport. And I got to gift two people I love dearly a free trip.
Maybe everything happens for a reason. Maybe if I went I would have broken my leg, or maybe my friends will fall in love and I’ll get to make the funny “Remember that time…” speech at their wedding. As of right now, though, I’m feeling pretty sour.
What’s your worst travel horror story? Please share in the comments below (if for any other reason than to make me feel like I’m not alone with having huge mishaps on the road!).
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