Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Thumbs up for Passport Services

A few years ago when I went to the UK, South African passport holders were still welcomed without the botheration of visas. Then the massive corruption that is prevalent in some of our government departments apparently made it necessary for the UK to declare South African passports insufficient proof of honourable intentions (taking us back to the days of the ‘green mamba’, which is what South African passports were called during apartheid, when they couldn’t get you access almost anywhere in the world).

Having gone through the horror-story of trying to get an American visa for my daughter a few years ago (an infuriating process that we finally abandoned), given the choice of trying to get a visa for the UK or never travelling again, I decided I’d just never travel again. But then my dad moved to Holland and I thought it would be nice to go and spend my birthday there with him in October. And that’s when I remembered that South African passport holders require a Shengen visa for travel to EU countries.

Getting a Shengen visa is almost as big a pain in the arse as getting an American one.

Digging around in my ‘important documents’ file (shoebox under my desk), I discovered my old UK passport, now six years out of date. Hmmm, I thought. I went on the Net and discovered that I could get it renewed, for an eye-watering sum, and as long as I presented myself in person to the British High Command or something. Obviously, what I wanted was a new passport that would give me access to all countries in the known universe, which cost nothing, and which I could get without moving from my chair.

We can’t always get what we want, but sometimes we can get a bit of what we want, and in this case it was through the exceptionally efficient and friendly means of the exceptionally straightforwardly named Passport Services. For a not inconsiderable but not actually usurious sum, and some running-around (I did say we can get a bit of what we want), I got my British passport renewed, and now can travel anywhere in the known universe should the spirit move me.

And here’s a thing: I contacted Passport Services at 8am on Monday 3 August and a real human being answered the phone on the second ring. Within literally minutes he had emailed me all the information I required. I took a few days to gather all the bumf, which Passport Services arranged for a courier to collect on Thursday 4 August, so it arrived in Johannesburg (where they’re based) the next day. Another call from a real human being assured me that by Friday lunchtime my documents and application had been submitted. And my new passport was delivered by courier, signed and sealed, yesterday, Monday 22 August. Which means that the entire process, from initial enquiry to passport-in-hand, took only 3 weeks!

There was one almost-glitch, which was interesting: I had my passport photos and application documents endorsed by a local policeman, but was subsequently informed that SAPS ratification of documents and pics is no longer allowed by the UK because of the huge corruption in certain of our government departments. (Gosh, it’s fun being a South African! Even though it’s no longer 1982!) Fortunately, I have aged so little since my original passport photo was taken when I was 30 that my pic 17 years later is still apparently recognisably me. (I find this laughable: my new passport photograph looks nothing like my old one – and, in fact, it looks nothing like the current me either, as I appear to have just been given the standard large dose of hallucinogen that everyone gets before their passport photos are taken, which causes them to look as if they’re doing mental battle with gila monsters.)

Now, here’s the South African equivalent of this story: my sister, who decided to come to Holland too, was unable, for various bureaucratic reasons (none the fault of Passport Services), to renew her expired British passport. So she has no choice but to travel on her South African passport, which means applying for the Shengen visa. Three weeks after she began the process, she’s still trying to get together the ludicrous mountains of documentation required, with no end in sight. I suppose we should just be grateful that her South African passport was current and didn’t need renewing.

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