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Thursday, 13 March 2014

The stolen passport affair

What happened to me

This gets a bit ranty especially when it gets to the bit about the UKPA so don't read if you don't like ranty bits.

This relates for those who would need to use British Embassy, Cairo and Mogamma - I'm not sure if British consulates in Alex or Luxor would be able to supply emergency passports and if you would be able to get replacement visas in your local offices.

In October 2013, I was on a bus and fell for a con trick - one old woman distracted me while another rifled through my handbag, stealing a purse which contained 140le, 2 ATM cards and, very sadly as it was a last minute addition and I never normally take it about, my passport. I didn't notice until I got onto another bus and opened my handbag to see a blackhole where my purse used to be. Fortunately, my phone was not in that purse and I called a friend who said get any taxi to hers and she would pay and we'd figure it out from there.  Several of my friends expressed surprise that I was robbed by three middle-aged/elderly women dressed in black abayas and not by men - just be advised about that presumption!  Little alarms had gone off in my head, but I had ignored them (was very tired and grumpy at the time for various reasons!) and it is obvious to me now that the bus (one of the small 6-seaters) was a gang looking for likely marks. Lesson: never ignore those tiny little alarm bells.  It means your brain has figured out something that your conscious mind hasn't registered!

This caused me a HUGE amount of problems and expense to replace and following 2 hours on the phone (thank heavens for Skype and my skype 'one country' subscription package and also that UKPA use an 0300 number which you can still call from skype as 0800 or 0845 are now blocked from abroad by skype) to an intransigent UK Passport Authority, I concluded that I had to go back to the UK to do it and sit for 2 months twiddling my thumbs while they deigned to complete the process for me.

You must report your stolen passport to the police - you will need the police report (and an official translation) for the embassy and the UKPA.  A friend's husband kindly accompanied me to the police station to translate.  I didn't want to risk my weak Arabic on this.

Returning to the UK necessitated obtaining an emergency passport from the British Embassy in Cairo.  Three trips to the Consular Section were necessary - the first because the information on the website was missing a couple of important pieces of information which I think they have since rectified, and I was required to produce PROOF of travel in the form of an actual ticket not just an itinerary- so I had to buy the ticket without knowing how long the process was going to take.  Fortunately I bought it for 2 weeks after my first visit to the Embassy.  One can only hope and pray that in a genuine emergency like someone dying, or if indeed you were supposed to fly the next day, they might have been a bit quicker off the mark, though you still have Mogamma to deal with afterwards.

I have no idea what would happen at the airport if you tried to exit simply with the emergency passport and your police letter without having been to Mogamma as you would have no entry visa.  Apparently during the revolution, Embassy officials simply sat at the airport handing out emergency passports and people were allowed to go. My policy living here is to try and do things legally as far as it is possible to find out what that is.

I had to fork out 1075le in actual hard cash (so if you were a tourist who had been robbed and had no cash or ATM cards, not entirely sure what you are supposed to do!) and return the next day to collect it. You also need the police letters and passport photos. Again, you need more than they said on the website - though they might have changed it. Just take a bucket load.  You need for Mogamma anyway.  Friends who have had passports lost or stolen in other countries seem able to have got their emergency passports the same day, not sure why it doesn't happen in Cairo, but it doesn't.

Now, here is the killer which you don't know - once you have got your emergency passport from the Embassy you must go to the Mogamma to get fresh visas and so forth - and you will need police letters and passport photos. Mogamma CLOSES at 2pm so plan to do it on a different day unless you like being very stressed.

UPDATE: (14/3/2014)  Somebody's watching me ;)  after making this post yesterday, today I received an Egypt Travel Advice Update from the FCO informing me that a change had been made to the Emergency Travel Documents page and it does now tell you that you have to go to the Mogamma :)  I praise their responsiveness! (I did use internet waybackmachine to check a saved copy of the FCO website to check that it didn't already say that in case in my highly stressed state in October I might have missed it, and indeed the version stored on January 20th 2014 is devoid of mention of mogamma).

The British Embassy simply tells you to go to the first floor (the usual visa floor) which anyone who has been to Mogamma knows is a rabbit warren thronging with people pushing and shoving with numerous windows and no 'information desk' at all.  After half an hour of going from pillar to post, someone finally told me to start at Window 41.  So go there.  (Of course, it might have changed by the time you read this, but it's a starting point). (I did call the one helpful person I had found in the British Embassy consular section to tell her that for future reference).

I was up and down and round about from window to window to window for 2 days.  At one point, I was sent from one window to another.  I queued for an hour.  The woman at the second window simply stapled my photo to the form - no signatures, stamps, anything - and sent me back to the first window.  I could have stapled my own darn photo to the form in 30 seconds if I had a stapler and not waste 2 hours queuing at the two windows.  And yes, you have to pay a fine - I think it was 150le.

The emergency passport is only valid for one journey (unless you have and can prove a complex itinerary) and is taken off you when you arrive at UK borders.

My big advice, keep your passport very very safe. Don't take it outside unless you absolutely MUST. The amazing bit is that my stolen purse with the passport and ATM cards was returned to me 10 days after theft - just the money gone - but sadly too late for the passport which theft had long since been reported to the police and said passport cancelled by the UK authorities. My electricity bill which has my name and address on it had been in the purse and someone somewhere had brought it to the local security officers who delivered it to my front door.

Replacing your stolen passport:

What a nightmare of finikity jobsworthiness - by the way ignore anyone who got a replacement stolen passport before August 2013 - the old form C1 (which you could put a UK address as your 'permanent' address and I could easily prove) no longer exists and has been replaced by a form OS which is nigh on impossible to complete if you live in Egypt as you need to prove your address in EGYPT - and as any fule kno many homes in Egypt don't have a street address at all, let alone receive any post of any sort - using one of several pieces of ID they consider acceptable - none of which applied to me.  You need to provide a countersignatory who belongs to one of a number of professions (and must be UK or European passport holder) can also receive post to a business address and confirm in writing to the UKPA on business-headed paper.  Don't bother using retired people, if they can't use business headed paper, you'll have to start again with a new counter-signatory. You will not be told this. You will simply have your CS rejected and not know why (happened to me, happened to someone else).

What you probably don't know is that when you go to get a British passport now that requires a countersignatory (either a brand new 'first' passport or a lost/stolen scenario one) then the UKPA writes to your CS at the address they gave with a photocopy of your mugshot but no name or address and asks the CS to write to them, on business headed paper, confirming that they signed the form.  All these bits and pieces are done by second class post.  Each little problem they pick up with your form, you get sent one letter, which is NOT explanatory - in these modern days with, you know, word processors, you might imagine that they an actually tell you what the problem is.

For example, the one saying I had to supply parents' details said it was because I was under 16!!!! Not because - even though you are sending us back the old passport - you still have to send those details in (and if I knew then what I knew now, I would never have returned the stolen passport to them as it had current Egyptian visas in it - they refused to send it back to me as it had been reported stolen even though they could just have cut the corners off like they normally do).  I called the UKPA to say, hello I'm 53 not under 16 and the person who answered said it was a mistake and as I had sent the old passport in, I didn't need to supply all that.  Anyway, she was wrong.

Then a week later, they send you another letter again by second class post with the next little problem.  "These photos appear to be more than 30 days old" well in my case yes they were, they were 3 months old because they were from the same batch I had taken when I got a brand new passport last summer and figured they would do just as well.  People are always using old photos of themselves.  The only reason they figured it out I guess was because they WERE identical.  If I had sent older ones in, they would probably have got through.  At 53 years of age, I do not change much in 3 months.  I had fresh ones taken and looked almost identical, even down to the shirt I was wearing.

Then, another 2 weeks later, we get another letter by second class post saying my Countersignatory had been rejected.  A former Chief Executive of a big name national charity who I had known 40 years and who had been my CS before!!!  No indication of why. Just 'does not appear to satisfy the criteria'.  Well after what happened to someone else, it appears that the crucial thing was 'retired' and no business address. But NOONE tells you that.

Then, another week later, we get yet another letter by second class post saying 'you have not supplied sufficient funds' well seeing as how they had my credit card details, take what you want just give me a frickin' passport! Turned out that because I had ticked the box asking for my documents to be returned to me (except the one I really wanted - the old passport with the valid Egyptian visas in it - they refused to return), I was supposed to add £3 and hadn't noticed.

Surely to God they could have saved a lot of money and a significant amount of stress if one person goes through your form and phones you to say - Mrs Bloggs, you need to do the following in order for us to process this form. After all, they ask for your phone numbers. The only time they used it was to tell me they were posting the passport out.

I also wish to point out that none of the above issues would have been picked up by a Post Office 'Check and Send' service. I got sick to the teeth of people saying 'check and send'. Check and send would not have picked up about the parents details, would not have known my photos were 3 months old, and would have had no idea my CS was going to be rejected.

My other big advice is get the following information together NOW before you need it:
parents' dates of birth, date and place of marriage, and if you are under 25ish, get your grandparents' information too.  Check the latest version of the forms for what the relevant date for getting grandparents' info is.

If you might need to do it from Egypt, identify someone who would be able to act as a countersignatory for you - check the details carefully, they are very strict now.  That person must not only satisfy one of certain criteria as a professional person including being British or European, but ALSO must be able to receive mail sent to their place of work, and respond on business headed paper.  They don't tell you that bit, until after you've couried the paperwork to the UK at vast expense, so forget retired persons.

Figure out how you would be able to prove your address in Egypt using one of the very few forms of proof they will accept - most of which don't work in Egypt unless you are an expat working for one of the multinationals or a proper school - the type that actually gets its teachers work permits. Again, check the current guidance notes for whatever the current overseas form is. It was a very limited list of 6 items when I was going to do it.  Remember in Egypt for most people it is virtually impossible to prove your address. And no, my electricity bill which is the only official Egyptian Government piece of paper I have with my name and address on it didn't count.

A lot of people giving you 'advice' will say 'oh it's easy do this do that' and it is not.  They fail miserably - no matter how many times you remind them - to appreciate that you are dealing with a STOLEN passport, not simply replacing an expiring passport. And even though my stolen passport was returned to me (albeit after it was cancelled etc), it did NOT help at all.

This was my experience November-December 2013.  The situation may change by the time you read or need this, you need to check uptodate information with the various UK and FCO websites as to what you have to do. Things on the whole are tightening not easing though.

Meanwhile, I had to sit in the UK for 10 weeks waiting for all this to be sorted.  I was very fortunate in that friends gave me free accommodation for that time. I had hoped to get temp work, but question one on entering agencies was 'can you give us your passport for ID'. 'erm... no'.

Anyway, suffice to say, forewarned is forearmed!

Important PS

It is crucial that you understand that it is ILLEGAL for you or someone purporting to be you to complete your form in the UK and hand-carry your new passport to you in the foreign country.  There will be no official record of how your new passport got from UK to the foreign land - either through a border crossing or via a diplomatic bag of some sort - and you AND the person who helped you will be in DEEP DOGGY DOO.  Don't risk it.

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