Steve's Passport Saga

A passport is a lovely thing – You give it to the nice men at the border they look at your rather terrible (ok, at least in my passport it is terrible) picture then chuckle a bit to themselves then wave you through. Well, that is the way it is supposed to work but in today's world it is a bit more complicated than that with border officials being ever more careful as to whom they let pass through their hallowed halls.

In five days I will be returning to the UK after spending three years here in The Gambia. Earlier in the year I noticed that my passport was set to expire in January. You might be aware that the advice is that you do NOT try to enter the UK (or any other European or American countries) with a passport that is going to expire in less than six months. In my case this is particularly important since I am returning to the UK to live – I don't want to upset the people at the border when I arrive. So this meant I needed to renew my passport before I left The Gambia.

What do I need to do to renew my passport?

Well, since there is no Canadian embassy in The Gambia I needed to contact the nearest one which is in Dakar. Browsing through their web site (the wonders of the Internet age!) I found the passport application form but no renewal form. Oh dear. Evidently you need to complete the full application form in order to renew. Fine, I printed it to have a look to see what hoops I would be needing to jump through.

Problem One - When I renewed my passport five years ago (Canadian passports are only good for five years) I had a bit of a problem while I was living in the UK due to the fact that the application requires the signature of a “guarantor”. This is someone who has known you personally for at least two years and can attest to that fact in the form of a statement on the application form that they must sign. Fine so far. There is a bit of a complication in that this “someone” must also be one of the following: “dentist, medical doctor, judge, magistrate, police officer, mayor, notary public, practising lawyer, or signing officer of a bank” (to quote the application form). When I applied for my passport in the UK I had only lived there for 1 year. Obviously, this posed a bit of a problem and I eventually had to fill out another form “Declaration in Lieu of a Guarantor” and have it attested to with a notary public (at great expense, I might add). Here in The Gambia it was, yet again, a problem. Luckily, however, I work for the Department of State for HEALTH and Social Welfare so I was able, with only a bit of work, to get a (medical) doctor to sign my application form.

Problem solved.

Problem Two - The passport photos to be included with the application are NOT standard passport photos but an obscure size and MUST be done according to their requirements (they are about double the size of a normal passport photo). Luckily, I dropped into the only photo shop in The Gambia that is capable of doing this size and was able to get the correct photos done quite quickly. The shop had dealt with the Canadian regulations before – having their photos rejected by the embassy about 4 or 5 times before they finally were able to get it right.

Problem solved.

Problem Three - Payment. To quote:

CAN$100 - includes the passport fee (CAN$75) and consular service fee (CAN$25). The fee is in Canadian dollars and should be converted into local currency. Cash, Certified cheque or money order (postal or bank) payable to the Canadian Embassy, High Commission or Consulate as the case may be.

Talking to the embassy in Dakar they gave me the amount I would need to pay in CFA and also indicated that if I wanted the passport to be sent to me I would also have to include 35,000 CFA (about £35) for the courier costs over the vast distances between The Gambia and Dakar. Ah-huh. Interestingly, if there is a problem with your passport application they will courier it back to you so you would have to courier it back to them (once again) with the necessary changes. This would get rather expensive (£70 for each returned passport application cycle). It was absolutely VITAL I got the application right so that I was not sent quickly deep into debt.

Payment posed some interesting problems.

How do you get cash to Dakar?

Without taking it in person – you don't. DHL will not send cash though I tried:

  • DHL: What do you have in the package?
  • Me: Passport application and cash fee.
  • DHL: We don't allow cash to be sent.
  • Me: (Straight face) Ok, there is no cash in the package.

They didn't buy it.

It is not advisable that you send it by the regular post. This eliminates the possibility of sending cash.

How about certified cheque?

It is NOT possible to get a certified cheque in CFA in The Gambia. I know. I tried. Five different banks. Of course, it is also not possible to get a certified cheque in Canadian dollars. You can get a US dollar certified cheque but that would not help.

Ok, money order?

Evidently the post office in Banjul will issue a money order but ONLY in Dalasis. Oh dear. The best I could do would be to have one sent from Canada (and take HOW long to get here?).

Can I use Western Union?

Dakar said “non”.

I was panicking a bit by this point (well, I was panicking a bit earlier as well but the situation was not getting any better).

About a month ago I began to make plans to send one of my colleagues to Dakar to hand in my application form and pay the fee since I could not do this in person (they indicated it would take up to five business days to process – I can't afford 5 business days in Dakar nor can I leave for that long this close to the end of my placement). He was looking forward to it too – He has never left the country before. I told him to get ready…

Reading the newspaper a few days later, what should I see:

  • Notice to the Canadian Community
  • The Consul of the Canadian Embassy would like to invite all Canadians living in The Gambia to meet the Consol on Friday, November 5th from 9 to 11 am at the Kairaba Hotel.

Well! Things are looking up! Perhaps I would be able to get my application form and fee to them in person. It turns out that this was exactly the case as this was confirmed to me by e-mail.

Friday, I show up at the Kairaba hotel and listen to what they have to say about how much they care for Canadians and how much they want to help us out. I enjoyed the free drinks and food then was able to corner the administrator to have her take my passport application and the fee – in cash (CFA) – complete with them issuing me an official copy of my passport and a receipt for the payment. Great! The wheels are finally in motion…

As an aside: Talking to other Canadians at the meeting with the Consul about the passport application they came to pretty much the same conclusion I had been coming to – the ONLY way to get your passport renewed is to actually physically travel to Dakar. I was glad to hear I was not the only one that was experiencing difficulties.

Problem solved. End of the problems? Nope.

Problem Four - Getting the new passport was not as easy as you might expect. Four weeks after handing my passport application over to the embassy I had still not heard from them so I gave them a phone call (after sending numerous unanswered e-mails) to ask what had happened. “Yes Mr. Rice, your passport was sent to you by DHL on the 17th” (it was the 24th at the time) “you might want to call DHL to see what is going on, the waybill number is…”

Yet another aside: Obviously, I did not get someone on the phone right away but rather left a few messages on various answering machines before someone finally picked up their messages and called me back.

A phone call to DHL on Banjul highway resulted in “oh yes, we have your package right here, did you want it delivered?” Correct me if I am wrong, but is that not the job of a courier company, to deliver packages to whom they are addressed? I decided not to tempt fate or question the situation and picked up the passport in person the following day.

Another aside: DHL reported that, actually, the package had been sent on the 22nd and not the 17th as reported by the embassy. Well, I was not going to worry about it – I had the passport and that is all that really matters.

Problem solved.

Concluding Thoughts

Some people have suggested perhaps I should consider changing citizenship since it seems Canada doesn't want me…Throughout this period of uncertainty and doubt as to whether I would be a Canadian again or not I was talking to Helen at the British High Commission who was very helpful to the point of even offering an emergency passport (UK) should I need one. Perhaps the Canadians can learn something from the brits when it comes to dealing with their own citizens?

Stephen Rice - Tuesday, November 30, 2004