Hello from Singapore! I’m currently visiting with Grace for vacation and a chance to meet her friends and family. This will be the first of a few blog posts about my experience and further thoughts.
When we first booked our flights to Singapore in April, Grace reminded me to check if my passport was up-to-date. Sure enough, it expired in 2016, so I thought I was fine. Little did I know…
She pressed again for details in early June, and I told her that it expires on January 31st, 2016. Well, apparently you don’t just need it to not have expired, you need 6 months buffer. “But we’re leaving in July!” I pointed out. Nope, you need 6 months buffer from your scheduled return flight. So my passport was expiring less than two weeks before it needed to.
In a previous post, I analyzed the probability of a coincidence I posed could have been a miracle. This case is a little bit different; I don’t think this whole experience is a clear-cut miracle like that. But it’s still quite remarkable that I was this close: Passports get renewed every 10 years, so the “probability” that I’d be just two weeks short of the deadline is around 2/500, or 0.4%.
As I wrote, we discovered this in early June. We quickly looked up the appropriate websites and discovered our options. Regular service would take 4 to 6 weeks, and we were almost 7 weeks (47 days) away from leaving. Expedited service would finish in 3 weeks, but cost an extra $60. I decided to just send it by regular service right away, on June 9th, over Grace’s concerns that we should expedite.
Of course, I wouldn’t be writing this post if that wasn’t a mistake. I now realize that I put too much trust in US institutions, and overestimated from the effectiveness of the website how quickly they would process my request. The The form also had a place for me to indicate our travel date, so I assumed they would take that into account.
I later learned that there have been 30% more passport requests this year compared with last year, which is a pretty significant increase on the scale of the US, and naturally strained their process. I also overvalued the $60 savings compared with the possibilities I would eventually face.
With that sent in, we both went back to our regular responsibilities. In mid-July, though, Grace started to get worried. We checked the website and I called in to the phone number they gave, which connected me to the National Passport Information Center. They had a long wait on the phone line, so I sent them an e-mail instead at an e-mail address they provided. “You should hear back within 24 hours,” I was told.
You can see from the Inbox label that I did get a reply, but it didn’t come in the promised 24 hours (and ended up not being useful anyways). I proceeded to call the number again, and after remaining on hold for half an hour listening to Chopin music, I got through to an agent. I updated Grace on the conversation:
how did passport stuff go?
they said they got it on 6/19
so it was 5 weeks before
so I asked them to transfer to expedited
hmm.. will they be able to make it on time?
so its like 3+ weeks
they said they can’t guarantee anything
should have done it on expedite right at the start
yeah now we know
i didn’t want to do the i told you so
but i told you
yeah I know
now i just want to cry
cos it meant so much to me
and you treated it so lightly
and now it will take them a while to get it mailed back to you
she said it wouldn’t reset the timer
just move it up
so that means you should be somewhat top of queue now
cos we had 7 weeks when we posted
it took 2 weeks to reach them
told you to do expedite in case things like this happen
next time listen to your girlfriend ok
As you can see, this situation started to have serious consequences for our relationship. Grace saw my refusal to request expedited service from the beginning as evidence that it didn’t matter that much to me whether I’d be able to actually go to Singapore. I maintained that it was not a difference in priorities, but expectations about how quick/competent the passport agency would be, and that she had just been right. From this point, I started taking more initiative with checking in, but Grace was always there to remind me as well.
The lady also advised me that I should see a charge on my bank account if they accepted my expedite request, and if I didn’t see one in the next day or two, I should call back.
Thursday, July 16, 9pm. Hours to flight: 179.
Sure enough, by the evening on Thursday, a week before we’d leave, I didn’t see any charge on my account. I called again (they were open until 10pm) and after a longer than usual wait, and asked for an update.
I learned that the people I was talking with were from the National Passport Information Center in Philadelphia, but the people who were processing my passport were at the National Passport Center in New Hampshire, a high-security facility that we couldn’t just call directly. Even the NPIC folks could only communicate with them in a limited way via a program, apparently for security purposes.
Anyways, this phone operator was rather helpful, and told me that it might be the case that my application didn’t need to be expedited, which is why they hadn’t charged me. They had confirmed that they knew of my deadline, which was a good sign. She confirmed my e-mail and said that NPC would be contacting me before Tuesday at 5pm.
Tuesday, July 21, 5pm. Hours to flight: 63.
It shouldn’t be a surprise at this point that I didn’t hear back by Tuesday. That afternoon, Grace and I drove to softball practice (yay ZipCar OneWay!) and I called them up again. We waited through the menu, typing four 1’s like we usually did. But when we got to the operator, we got a busy signal and then it hung up.
So we tried again, and it happened two more times before we were able to get through to the usual Chopin music, the first time we were actually happy to hear it. I warmed up for softball still on hold, and our teammates asked if I was on a call or just getting myself pumped up listening to music. I got through, but this operator was much less helpful. She explained that they hadn’t heard anything from the NPC folks, either, and that there was no way to contact them.
With nothing else to do, Grace and I just prayed.
Wednesday, July 22, 10am. Hours to flight: 46
The next morning, I called again. As the operator I talked to explained, the immediacy of my travel opened up a communication method with the NPC. Actually, he said, it applied 72 hours ahead, and the previous operator should have known about this as well. I realized that I should have asked to speak to her supervisor, since different operators seemed to have different information.
Anyways, this operator said he would send a message through to the NPC, and gave me an e-mail address to send one myself as well. So I did:
Oops. Can you figure out the typo I made?
Well, I couldn’t. Maybe it was actually supposed to be travel.state.gov? Or hyphens in between the words? Those e-mails bounced, too, though, so I called again, and had to wait on hold for another half hour. The first operator didn’t know what I was talking about, but was able to transfer me to a specialist of some kind who did. After waiting an hour and a half on hold in all (while eating brunch with a friend), I found out that I had heard NDC when, of course, it should have been NPC. I sent off the correct e-mail and waited to hear back.
Wednesday, July 22, 3pm. Hours to flight: 41
I updated Grace:
So I called an hour ago
They said I should make an appointment with the National Passport Center in New Hampshire
Did you call them?
Go to NH
That makes sense
So they transferred me over
And I listened thru the phone system for the NPC
And their next available appointment time was next week
So the guy I had talked to was competent
And he said if that happened I should call back and they’d connect me with an appointment specialist
Who would be able to fix that
So after hanging up with NPC
I called back
And the call didn’t go thru
So I waited and kept trying
And got through just now
And talking to the woman on the other end
She said there was a problem with their system
And she couldn’t pull up my account
And therefore couldn’t do anything
She said to call back in a couple hours
Wait this is messed up
Between this, the busy signal earlier, and the mixed messages from different operators, this added up to at least four different problems I had experienced with the National Passport Information Center. If I’d learned anything, though, it’s to be persistent, and I called back 20 minutes later.
Ok this lady says there was some notice of acknowledgement from the NPC at 4:21 today
She transferred me to an “appointment specialist”
I asked that lady some more questions
She said once it ships there will be a tracking number
And I can call to get that
Also that the website is not updated as frequently so I should call again and again
What thing ships there?
I asked her to get an appointment in NH
My passport book
And she said nothing is available
So your passport book is made?
And you can just collect?
We can try walking up but there are no guarantees they will see us
I booked a ZipCar for the following morning, in case we’d need to drive up to New Hampshire to get it. And I kept calling them around every hour. Eventually:
Ok that guy was very helpful
He sent them another reminder
And was reassuring
He said I should get an email alert if it is sent
But I should just keep calling otherwise until 10pm
The passport book?
Do they work till late?
Yeah if it’s in the mail
Yeah he said the NPC is working nights and weekends
And they will do overnight?
That’s the hope
So that means if they don’t do it tonight
Going tomorrow won’t really help
Why is everyone giving different information??????
Either way we can decide what to do at 10 tonight
This is so unnerving
You can stop worrying
I’ll take care of things
And just let you know any real updates
Unfortunately, as much as I hoped stepping up my game would help calm her down, the whole situation was still worrying enough and out of my control to fix.
Wednesday, July 22, 10pm. Hours to flight: 34
I called once more in the evening, after a town hall meeting in my dorm about the upcoming renovations.
This lady says it got expedited without me being charged, but it might not be completed until tomorrow. She says we can transfer it over to will call (go get it) and is transferring me to a specialist.
Do you want all these details? I don’t want to stress you out…
That sounds better than no info
Okay that was the most competent guy
He sent a message through the secure channel to the NPC
They will call me first thing tomorrow at the latest to figure out when I can go pick it up or if it can be shipped to me in time
It seems that the NPC realized that they should have been able to complete it without expediting, which was a good sign at least. I cancelled the morning ZipCar and went to sleep.
Thursday, July 23, 11am. Hours to flight: 21
Well, sleep wasn’t the best description. I kept waking up in the early morning thinking I might have gotten a call. If you’ve been reading this far, though… you know that I didn’t. Every time I was supposed to hear something from the NPC, I hadn’t. Why would this time be any different?
I didn’t get a call, but I did notice just as I was about to call them that the website was updated, for the first time since we’d started checking. It said that my passport had been completed and was in the mail! They had apparently completed it the night before at 10:41pm and sent it right in without calling me to see if I wanted to go collect it. And now the website was estimating the delivery date as… Saturday. Way too late.
They gave us a UPS tracking number, though, and this confirmed that it was on Next Day Air, which would arrive well before Saturday, probably the normal shipping time. We called NPIC one more time, and they said that it was out of their hands now that UPS had it. But when we called UPS, they said that they hadn’t picked it up yet, just that the label had been printed. They couldn’t do anything about it until they had the package in their system.
Thursday, July 23, 5pm. Hours to flight: 16
I soon became intimately familiar with another phone tree. I called UPS again, and they still hadn’t gotten it. With nothing else to do, I went to go play frisbee, and just hoped that we could go get it from UPS later that evening.
Grace kept refreshing UPS’s website, and noticed shortly thereafter that UPS had picked up the package at around 4:45. After I didn’t pick up my phone, she ran to the frisbee fields to find me. I came off the field to call them again, using the keyword “agent” to get through the phone tree faster. The agent told me that although they had picked it up, he couldn’t contact the facility it was headed to in Dover, NH, until it had arrived there. With nothing to do but wait, I kept playing frisbee while Grace kept refreshing the website on the sideline.
After frisbee, we called them again and found out that my passport had been loaded quickly onto another truck headed for Chelmsford, MA. With that being only an hour away, this was good news to us. But they also updated the guaranteed arrival time to 10:30am on Friday, a couple hours after our flight was going to leave.
That evening during a goodbye board games party, I called UPS five more times. Eventually I got through to a supervisor who understood the situation and tirelessly worked to contact the different facilities where it would be, actually calling me back multiple times. Before we could go get it from Chelmsford, it was shipped in a trailer to Somerville, even closer to us. She got in contact with the unloading supervisor in Somerville, and he understood the situation and would try to get it out of the trailer for us.
At the same time, she warned me that she wanted to set my expectations appropriately, and that it might not arrive in time. But this was still the most anyone had done for us, and I went ahead and packed after games was done.
Friday, July 24, 5am. Hours to flight: 3
Grace and I were already planning on staying up all Thursday night, to try to mess up our sleep schedules enough to flip the full 12 hours to Singapore time. But the night was rather full, between phone calls, board games, and packing. Refreshing the website, we saw that the trailer had left Chelmsford at around 4:30. We kept refreshing and it arrived in Somerville at 5:15!
As it turned out, with the weird geography of Boston’s highways and airport, the Somerville UPS facility was closer to the airport than we were, so it wasn’t much of a detour. We caught an Uber as the sun was rising, planning to have Grace leave from UPS on her own if I couldn’t get it on time.
At 5:50, when we arrived, we talked with the unloading manager, and he explained that he had gotten the trailer at 5:20 and had immediately begun unloading. “How long does the full process usually take?” “About an hour and a half,” he said matter-of-factly. That would finish an hour before the flight, enough time to get to the airport, check in, and go through security. Our first flight would be domestic, so we didn’t anticipate anything more than the usual wait.
So there we were, waiting outside at a picnic table outside a giant UPS garage in the middle of a Somerville shipping complex, watching and waiting for that elusive passport, hours before the flight. We had already checked the other potential ways to get to our connection in Dulles, and apart from a $300 JetBlue flight departing 12 minutes later, there was no way to get there in time for our next flight to Tokyo.
To make sure Grace could get to the flight, we decided for her to catch an Uber at 6:30, and then I’d wait until I had it. We left the picnic table to awkwardly hang around the giant entrance. Sure enough, 6:30 came and there was no sign of it, so she went off to the airport. Eventually, someone came and asked me if he could help, and I told him everything. He copied down my tracking number and went off to find it.
Ten minutes later, at 6:47, the manager nonchalantly walked out with a big envelope and a clipboard for me to sign. I did so and immediately ordered an Uber. Tearing open the package, I finally saw it.
My new passport! And my old one, which I had to send in with the application. I fired off an e-mail update I had already drafted to my parents and the friends who had heard most recently about the situation.
Friday, July 24, 7am. Hours to flight: 1
“Drive as fast as you can to the airport,” I told my Uber driver. He obliged, and got me there in less than 20 minutes despite the morning traffic. Grace told me precisely which door to go in, and I scanned this brand new passport at the kiosk to get my boarding pass. Security had a long line, but it was moving quickly and I could see Grace on the other side. “Nothing’s for certain yet,” though, I told myself, and sure enough, security called a bag check on my backpack. After emptying nearly everything, they found a small serrated knife that I had left in the bottom of one of the spacious pockets, probably forgotten after bringing lunch into the office.
But that was it, and we got to the gate right on time to board without a wait. Woohoo!
In all, I called the NPIC 24 times, spending 8 hours and 4 minutes on the phone with them, most of that on hold listening to Chopin. I called UPS 17 times, and UPS supervisors called me 4 times, but we spent only 3 hours and 49 minutes on the phone in the day before my flight. However you measure it, though, all this hassle was still not worth the $60 I ended up saving in the end. I should have expedited in the first place.
What lessons did I learn?
- If your passport is expiring in the next year, just renew it now.
- Don’t count on the US postal service delivering something time-sensitive quickly, at least with First Class Mail.
- If you need to talk to a person in a phone tree but can’t find an appropriate path to get to one, try saying “agent.” (This worked for UPS.)
- If you’re talking to an agent and they aren’t giving you answers you expect are true or saying things can’t be done, ask to talk to their supervisor or a specialist who might be able to help.
- Just keep calling. Different people will have different information.
- Remember to take your used silverware out of your backpack before going on a flight.
- Listen to your girlfriend.
Stay tuned for future posts about my time in Singapore!