What to do when you lose your passport

20:58, Mar 16 2014

To be fair, I had popped a sleeping pill before the potholed, vertigo-inducing trip to Luang Prabang in Laos. Necessary - not least because of the rowdy Brit backpackers alongside us in the sweaty, death-can of a bus. 

Nine hours later, smelly and groggy, we boarded a ute tuk-tuk to the city. My luggage included a detachable day pack for my invaluable travelling trio - phone, wallet, passport. 

Ainslee and I were the first ones dropped off at our hostel. Desperate to crash into bed, I jumped off the ute tray, grabbed my backpack and paid the driver with cash from my pocket. 

At the hostel, the hostess asked for our passports. My heart jumped into my throat, then sank to my gut. I thought I had everything. I didn't. I bolted outside, but our driver was in a sea of identical tuk-tuks heading to the night markets. Our hostess gave me her bike to track him down, while Ainslee began a vigil at the hostel's entrance. 

Biking around Luang Prabang like a madman, increasingly desperate, with the closest New Zealand embassy thousands of kilometres away in Bangkok, Thailand, I realised I was in the chicken-and-egg conundrum from tourist hell. I couldn't leave Laos without a passport but couldn't get a new one without leaving. What to do? 

Could I claim insurance? Would the embassy in Bangkok help me out a bit and just put it on my student loan tab? Deflated, I returned to the hostel, with no answers or passport. 

It turned out that thanks to luck and goodwill, I didn't need answers. The tuk-tuk driver, who makes about 40c an hour, had returned to the hostel after dropping his remaining passengers off and given my bag of valuables to a very relieved Ainslee. But what happens to Kiwis who don't have such upstanding taxi drivers, or are just plain forgetful? 

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) recommends getting a police report first off, then deciding whether to apply for a replacement passport or an Emergency Travel Document (ETD). New Zealand passports are only produced in Wellington, Sydney and London but urgent ones can reach you in three days, plus delivery time, and cost $287. 

Otherwise, if you need to travel urgently, you should apply for an ETD. These are quicker to process and ideal if there is no New Zealand embassy or consulate nearby. Contact the closest New Zealand embassy (you can't apply online) and then call the passport office in Wellington to pay the $350 fee by credit card. 

The ETD is accepted by foreign customs and immigration officials, but MFAT recommends returning home first, rather than continuing your travels, particularly if you are crossing multiple borders. The fee includes a replacement passport if you apply within 30 days. 

MFAT recommends taking out comprehensive travel insurance before you head overseas as they won't pay or waive fees except in exceptional circumstances. 

Grogginess which leads to abandoning your valuables on a tuk-tuk doesn't cut it, apparently.

Josh Martin is a business journalist for Fairfax NZ.


Sunday Star Times