Part I: Denied entry to India with eVisa due to U.S. emergency passport
In our tenth month of traveling the world, after visiting 5 continents, 24 countries, and 94 cities, our journey has taken an unexpected turn. Matt and I just returned home to Seattle to get myself a new passport.
How did this happen? It all comes back to an emergency passport that I acquired in at the U.S. embassy in Frankfurt after fearing that my diminishing number of blank passport pages would get me in trouble abroad. This caused us to be denied entry into India, followed by Indonesia, where we had to spend a night in an immigration holding room in Bali (not quite the villa room we booked), while we waited to be deported back to Singapore. In reality, I would have been better off with my original passport (at least for a couple more months), but I had no way of knowing how events would go beforehand.
This is a three-part series of misfortunate travel events (yes, there really are that many unfortunate events, it’s been a crazy month), which all lead back to an emergency passport issued by the U.S. Embassy in Frankfurt. The cherry on top is the emergency passport was issued on the same day my family dog died back at home. Sh*tty, I know.
Here’s what went down.
Travel Planning – Let’s go to India! En route to SE Asia
In early September while we were in Montenegro, I was searching for the cheapest way to get us to Southeast Asia after Oktoberfest in Munich. I found the cheapest options from Germany were to India, which wasn’t originally part of our “itinerary” (aka countries we thought we might visit on our year abroad). But I thought it would be an awesome place to visit (we could see another one of the seven wonders of the world – the Taj Mahal, practice yoga in the birthplace of yoga, and drink lots of my favorite tea – chai).
Another perk is that it would also break up the long flight from Europe to SE Asia. It was supposed to be an ideal time, weather-wise, to visit India (unlike when we visited the Sahara Desert in the dead heat of summer). We could get to SE Asia from India for relatively cheap and found a flight to Bali, where we wanted to visit in October (an ideal season to visit).
We need an Indian visa? No problem
With a search online, we found out we needed visas to enter India as U.S. citizens. We applied online for eVisas, paid the $75 fee each, were granted them the following day. Easy enough. We booked our cheap flight with Air India for 692 euro ($837) for the both of us, to New Delhi at the end of September. The direct flight left from Frankfurt, where we would head to from Munich after Oktoberfest.
Side note – we don’t recommend booking through the booking site Travelgenio due to hidden fees. The cheap fare turned out not to be so cheap – they charged $50 A TICKET to book with a credit card and also extra per checked bag.
Over the next week, we did travel research and made plans for a 5-day guided tour through the India’s “golden triangle” – New Delhi, Agra (home of the Taj Mahal) and Jaipur. We found a couchsurfer to host us in New Delhi when we returned from the tour and reserved a place to stay in Rishikesh (the birthplace of yoga) for three nights. It is required to have a ticket to leave India, so we booked a flight from New Delhi (with a long layover in Kuala Lumpur) on AirAsia for $400 for the two of us plus a checked bag each.
Sh*t, I’m running really low on passport pages
Along with having a visa, one of the requirements to get into India is to have two blank passport pages. Since my passport is seven years old and I’m a frequent traveler (especially this year), I was running low on pages. I still had two blank pages left (also a half page and a couple random spots for stamps on other pages). But a requirement to get into Indonesia (Bali, where we were headed after) is also to have two blank pages. Clearly, if I needed to two blank pages to get into both India and Indonesia and only had two total, I wouldn’t have had enough pages to get into Indonesia.
I looked online to see how I could add pages to my passport, but as of 2016, U.S. citizens are no longer able to add pages to their passports. Great. The only option is to get a new passport. At this time, we were in Croatia and the cities we were visiting did not have U.S. embassies. Looking at our travel schedule before we visited India, the U.S. Embassy in Frankfurt was our only option.
Through my own research online, I hoped to receive a second passport, as I would need to use my current passport to get into India since it was linked to my Indian eVisa. I emailed the U.S. embassy to see what I could do about getting a second passport. When the email proved to be unhelpful (basically regurgitating information that was on their website without specifically addressing my questions or situation), I called tried calling the Frankfurt Embassy (the following day because they have crazy limited hours).
Don’t bother calling the U.S. Embassy in Frankfurt for passport help
I don’t have an international mobile plan so I can’t use my phone. Matt has international data but his international calling is 20 cents a minute. This was the beginning of many calls we have racked up on his phone. The embassy is only open on weekdays from 7:30-11:30 a.m. and 2-4 p.m. The morning hours are for appointments, and the two-hour window in the afternoon is when you are advised to call. While exploring Pula, Croatia, at 2 p.m. I began calling the number for passport assistance. After going through the menu option and selecting the option to talk to someone, the line would ring (well, phones beep, not ring, while calling in Europe) and beep and beep and beep and eventually hang up.
There is a general line for the embassy, so I called that and started to explain my situation, and a woman told me she would transfer me to the passport line, which directed me to the same number that would beep and beep and hang up. After trying the passport number a few more times with the same result, I called the main embassy line back. The man on the phone only gave me a number to call – which was the same number I had been calling. I told him this number did not work, it would only ring forever, and he said that meant it was busy, but to try again.
I asked, “So I’m just supposed to keep calling continuously for the next hour and a half to see if someone picks up?”
His response, “yes ma’am.” I wish I could have punched him over the phone. This is not ideal for someone paying 20 cents a minute for international calling. It’s actually not ideal for anyone.
Spoiler alert – we never got through to anyone after calling continuously for the next hour and a half as advised.
Visit to the U.S. Embassy in Frankfurt
I decided just to make an appointment with the embassy online and hopefully get my questions answered there (which as it turns out, they were answered incorrectly there anyway). I made an appointment for Monday morning, as our flight was to India on Wednesday. Tuesday happened to be a German holiday so they would be closed. I filled out all of the necessary paperwork for the appointment and printed the papers I needed for a second passport. It takes 4-6 weeks to get a passport and 2-3 for an expedited passport. I realized with my short time frame I would need an emergency passport. I believed an emergency passport was just a normal passport that you received within 24-48 hours, when it is actually a completely different type of passport (spoiler alert – it is pretty useless). This is one of the questions I wanted to ask the embassy while calling.
On our first morning in Frankfurt, Matt and I woke up before the sun rose to make our way to the U.S. Embassy. Unsurprisingly and understandably, the U.S. embassy has very high security. You are not allowed to bring in any electronics (not even your cell phone or an electronic watch). Luckily, we knew this beforehand and wrote down directions old-school on a piece of paper. A lot of people show up there with a phone or Fitbit or Apple watch and have to go a few blocks away to store their items. Even though I wrote Matt’s name down on the appointment sheet for people attending with me, he was not allowed to enter the embassy as he did not have his own appointment. He had to wait outside in the cold autumn morning temperatures.
I waited in the first line outside to turn in my appointment paper, then went through security, then into another building where I got a number and waited again (similar to a DMV). When my number was called, I told the man at my window upstairs my situation. He said it wouldn’t be a problem to get me a passport before my flight (to my relief at the time), took my paperwork, and told me to pay the passport fee ($110) at another window and come back with the receipt while he went through my paperwork.
When I came back with my payment receipt, he asked why I had a filled out a paper for a second passport. I told him because I still needed my original passport to get into India, because my visa was tied to that passport number. He told me that because I would be getting my original passport back that this wouldn’t be a problem. He said I could show them my original passport with the valid date along with the valid Indian visa, and that I would be fine. But another spoiler, it wouldn’t be fine.
For the second passport, he asked if I had a signed letter from my employer (on company letterhead) stating why I needed a second passport (I had read online was another required document to receive a second passport). But this didn’t make sense to me from the get-go because not all of the reasons you could apply for a second passport have to do with business related travels. I explained that I was currently unemployed since I quit my job to travel, and he said I would have to wait until I was home and had a job to get a letter from my employer if I wanted to get a second passport later.
I waited as he processed the paperwork and had two other people come up to his desk until he called me back up again. To my horror, when he gave me my emergency passport and returned my original passport, he had whole punched the bottom of my passport. Despite its validity until the expiration date in 2020, the punches made it completely invalid. But at the time I still thought I would be fine with the emergency passport.
When I received my emergency passport, I was under the impression that it worked the same as my regular U.S. passport (except with a shorter lifespan of one year). This is NOT true. I believed “limited validity” only meant it wasn’t valid as long, but that is not the case. You would think the man working at the embassy who gave me my emergency passport, or the documentation that came with it, would have mentioned this somewhere.
All he told me was that whenever I returned home to the U.S., I could turn in my emergency passport, a new picture, and an application form he gave me to fill out, to get a new passport without a fee (and to make sure to check the box for the larger 52-page passport for free so I don’t run into this problem again). He didn’t think to warn me that the passport I now held would deny me entry from countries that I would normally be able to enter with my old passport.
Another frustrating aspect is that on my application for my passport, I listed the countries I would be going to next (as far as I knew). India and Indonesia were the first countries on this list.
You would think the U.S. embassy would at least be aware that I couldn’t get into Indonesia with this passport, I surely can’t be the first U.S. citizen coming through this massive embassy to travel to Bali. It would have been nice to get a heads up that “hey, one of the countries you are traveling to doesn’t accept this emergency passport as a valid passport, and I’m going to hole punch your only valid passport making it impossible for you to use it to travel.” But alas, I had to find this out the hard way.
At the time though, I thought I was being proactive by getting this passport and that I did the right thing to continue my travels. I had thought this passport was going to take longer to get and was relieved I wouldn’t have to come back to the embassy or anything to pick it up. Yes, the process was inconvenient, but it was over with. Or so I thought…
Air India won’t let me on the plane because my eVisa doesn’t match my new passport
Matt and I went to check into our Air India flight early on Wednesday evening. The Air India staff member checking passports and visas looked at my printed eVisa and passport (I presented both my original and emergency passport). He asked why the number was different on my passport from my eVisa paper and I told him my story. He had me wait over on the side of the line while he called his manager and other employees to take a look at my documents.
When he called me back over, he told me since the new passport (the only valid one since my other passport was punched) didn’t match the passport number on the eVisa, I wasn’t going to be able to board the flight. He was confused as to why my valid passport was punched and wanted to know who did it, and I explained that it was done at the U.S. embassy in Frankfurt. I told him the U.S. embassy told me I would still be able to travel to India with this passport, but management at Air India told me I could not and they had final authority.
One of the employees said a man who worked for the Indian government checked in on the flight and he would ask and see if there was anything he could do for me. The Air India staff member said sometimes if one letter or number is off your passport (or if someone put an O instead of a 0) that sometimes it can be changed. So we waited outside the line again. But as it turns, a whole new passport number cannot be changed.
I called the Indian visa number, explained my situation, and asked if they could change the number to meet my new emergency passport, but the man on the line told me they could not change the policy for me and my option was to apply for another eVisa with the new passport number. I asked if this could be rushed or done over the phone, but he told me I had to reapply online and it would take the normal processing time (up to 72 hours).
Reapply for an Indian eVisa & reschedule our flight
Because we booked the cheapest fare possible, we weren’t eligible for a refund or change from Air India, despite the fact we were denied entry by the airline. The only positive is that was had one really nice agent helping us, who was at least sympathetic to our situation. We had to buy another flight out of pocket (and hope that travel insurance pulled through for this – we are still hoping they will).
We wanted to at least wait a few days to allow time for my eVisa to be accepted. The next available flight at a rate comparable to the one we booked at was on Sunday, so we went ahead and reserved it. Since we booked with a third-party site, we had to call and deal with them for payment (further hassle and more international phone calls).
We then changed our tour start dates and canceled the place we booked in Rishikesh (thankfully that was still refundable), as we wouldn’t have time to go there anymore.
Once we had our flight changed, I immediately applied online for a new eVisa at the airport, sending $75 more to the Indian government to cover the fee. Then we started looking for somewhere to stay in Frankfurt until Sunday. Accommodation in Frankfurt was crazy expensive – there was some trade show in town too which apparently happens there often, and that results in most places being booked. After having no luck with an affordable place and sending new couchsurfing requests, we reached back out to our original host and luckily, we were able to go back and stay with him, which saved us a lot of extra stress and money.
Second Indian eVisa rejected
The following day (Thursday) in the early evening, we checked the status of the visa and saw that it was rejected, the reason being that it was not an original passport. F***!!!!!
The status said my only other option was to apply for a full tourist visa ($60 or $150 depending on the length of validity) in person. There is an Indian embassy in Frankfurt, but we only had a day and didn’t know if it would be possible to get it that fast or with my emergency passport. We needed to look for backup plans without the Indian visa.
The frustrating thing we’ve found is everyone (from embassies, to airlines, to customs) can tell you something different when it comes to requirements to enter a country.
New plan – Let’s go to Singapore (via Amsterdam!), but we have a layover in India…
We scoured the internet (Skyscanner!) for flights from Germany to Asia, trying to select a new destination. I came across a flight from Amsterdam (not too far from Frankfurt) to Singapore on the upcoming Tuesday. The flight had a short layover in India (Mumbai), which slightly worried us, but we did more research and made a call to the airline and Indian embassy to ensure we could transfer through the airport without a visa.
Since we couldn’t get to New Delhi, we had to also cancel our flight from New Delhi to Bali. Air Asia’s cheap fare doesn’t give refunds but we needed proof of cancellation for our travel insurance. It’s always fun to deal with customer service employees from budget airlines…and book another flight from Singapore to Bali ($200).
We made a friend on our sail trip earlier in the year who lived in the Netherlands, not too far from Amsterdam and she told us we could stay with her. Unfortunately, the day before we left to Amsterdam, she told us we weren’t able to. Out of the three other friends we have in Amsterdam (two we made during our trip and one from my sorority), everyone else was out of town. Accommodation in Amsterdam is also expensive, so we had to pay 120 euro ($142) to spend two nights in a shared hostel room.
We took a BlaBlaCar (like Airbnb but for traveling drivers and passengers to find rides) to Amsterdam for $30 each ($60 total). We enjoyed a couple days exploring the beautiful city.
While going through customs in Amsterdam, the man at the airport asked why there were no stamps in my passport, and I told him I got a new one in Frankfurt. I told him I would show him my old one, but he smiled and said not to worry, he trusted me. Thank you old man!
Despite a short layover and running through the Mumbai airport like crazy people to catch our flight to Singapore, we didn’t have any issues with customs in India on our layover. If you are traveling to India, we would recommend Jet Airways! At least we got to eat some Indian food on the plane (surprisingly good for airplane food).
Although we were very jet lagged our first few days in Singapore, we had an AMAZING week. Singapore was very different than we had anticipated (better!). We scored some media passes tourist attractions (free entry!), enjoyed lots of cheap Asian food, and got some awesome drone footage! We lucked out with a cheap Airbnb (rare in Singapore). We thought our bad luck was behind us…