Don’t let this little known passport rule ground you

by Fabiola Santiago

There I was, booking spring birthday travel, high as a college freshman after scoring some really good stuff: Reasonable airfare from Miami to Morocco. 


I cheered as I booked my flight to Casablanca. Hello, camel ride into the Saharan sunset. 

Now, the only thing left to decide was whether I’d venture on my own to a country in Africa I’ve dreamed about visiting for years, as I did with my trip to Norway last summer, or book a tour for greater ease and safety. 

I was studying train schedules between cities when I found out that a discounted National Geographic tour was within my reach, had near-perfect dates and just about everything I wanted to experience. 

I ended my laborious DIY pursuit and proceeded to close the deal. 

Then, pouf, my plans evaporated — no thanks to a little-known passport rule. 

The second paragraph of the booking document asked me to certify that I had a valid U.S. passport. Sure I did. Then, came the warning: Morocco requires a U.S. passport that is valid for at least six months. And they don’t play or bargain with their immigration rules. That is, if you get that far. Airlines know the requirement and turn passengers away at the airport counter. 

No mercy. 

And so, when I checked my passport, I discovered that Morocco had managed to succeed where my guilt-tripping Cuban parents had failed: I was grounded. 

My passport was only good until the end of June. 

Passport renewal  

Then began the second part of my odyssey: passport renewal. 

There’s no way to get a passport right away unless it’s a grave emergency. No more lining up at a federal building in downtown Miami, as I once did, and getting a new passport in no time at all. And the closest federal office with an appointment: New Orleans. 

With travel booming in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, not a thing is business as usual for those of us with unabated wanderlust, especially for foreign travel and adventure. 

“If things go well, we might be at the threshold of a new age of travel,” the global management firm McKinsey & Company predicted in 2021. 

“Is the industry ready?” the consultants asked. 

Not at all — especially since government is also a major part of the puzzle. 

Getting through immigration last summer at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport was an hourlong ordeal. Not enough staff. Confusing lines. 

Now, the State Department Passport service is slammed, too. 

“As more and more Americans travel internationally again, we are experiencing record passport demand for this time of year, often receiving more than 500,000 new passport applications each week,” the State Department said on Twitter. 

Yep, we all just want to get the heck outta here. 

Hideous photograph  

I couldn’t have moved faster on my end to apply for a new passport. 

I bolted to the corner CVS to get a photo taken looking as ragged as if I had just woken up. 

For some ridiculous reason, the only thing I did was change into a black shirt with a high neck. But Nora Ephron fans will understand. It’s why the late journalist and filmmaker wrote the book “I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts About Being a Woman.” 

“Don’t smile,” the young CVS employee prompted. “Take off your glasses. Those are the rules.” 

Again, rules. This time, I followed them to a T — and in an hour I had downloaded and filled out the renewal application form, written a check for $209.53 that included a $60 fee to expedite the renewal and a priority-mail charge for sending me the passport. I also paid another $17.86 to ship the package to a Philadelphia processing center via priority mail. 

At first, the State Department Travel website said it would take 3-5 weeks for expedited service, then one day (yes, I checked neurotically), I saw that this changed to 5-7 weeks. And with that, left any hope of re-booking that March 4 flight for a tour that would have had me celebrating my birthday in the coastal town of Essaouira, where surfers and hippies like Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens hung out. 

And still, I checked the passport website using my application number. “In Processing,” it always said. I called, but was never able to get a human to pick up. The line just went dead. And I tweeted my desperation at @TravelGov, embarrassing myself. 

I had not felt this claustrophobic since the COVID lockdown. 

Free to fly  

Then  I went to my mailbox — and life changed. 

After I had already resigned myself to either another glamping experience at the Everglades or watching the river turn green on St. Patrick’s Day in a very cold and windy Chicago — a priority mail envelope sat jammed in there with the usual junk and a book. Because it’s too much trouble to walk a few steps to my door to deliver a vital federal identification document. But that’s the Hialeah-Miami Lakes postal “service.” 

There it was, my “Next Generation Passport,” a glossier book that uses new technologies to enhance security features like a sturdy polycarbonate data page with laser-engraved personalization — and evocative updated artwork. 

An image of Earth taken from space adorns the back page. Says the quote below it, by Anna Julia Cooper, an African-American education-rights champion: “The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class — it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity.” 

In my case, it was also the cause of a moment of ecstasy. 

Hideous photo notwithstanding — it’ll be easier than ever to recognize me since that is what I look like after a nine-hour transatlantic journey — I’m free to flee!  

Fabiola Santiago is a columnist for the Miami Herald.