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My sister's name on her passport is 25 characters not including spaces: 5 letters for her given name, 7 letters for her middle name, and 13 letters, including a hyphen, for her last name. (It's NOT a hyphenated name in the usual sense of one half coming from one spouse and the other half from the other spouse: some benighted ancestor of her husband's chose to spell his last name with a hyphen, and his hapless descendants have been fighting with bad form/database designs ever since. This is important because people's default reaction of using one half or the other when the whole thing won't fit results in a name that might belong to somebody on the planet, but it sure doesn't belong to my sister or any of her relatives.)

She was just trying to book a flight, and the website had the usual warning about "your name on the booking must match the name on your passport". It also had, in smaller letters, a statement that "names cannot contain special characters", and in the list of disallowed characters was, guess what: a hyphen. Rock, meet hard place.

After the usual round of cursing (this is not the first time That Dratted Hyphen has caused trouble), my sister went ahead and entered her name without the hyphen. Hit submit, form comes back all red with the error message: maximum total name length is 20 characters. What the hucking fell?

Other than wishing the designers of that website a slow, tortured death in the lowest depths of hell, what can my sister do in such a case? If she leaves off her middle name and omits the hyphen, her name will definitely not match the one on her passport, but that's basically what the website is forcing her to do. Will the airport staff (in China, just to complicate matters) know that "First LongLastname" is roughly the same name as "First Middle Long-Lastname"?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – JoErNanO Jul 11 '18 at 10:29
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    @JoErNanO - What's the point of sweeping out all the comments together, including the one's that should stay here? – Kevin Fegan Jul 12 '18 at 5:56
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Many of the systems involved in air ticketing have been around for 50 years or more, and definitely show their age as you've seen...

The good news is that these restrictions are very well known, and there are standard ways to work around them.

  • The Hyphen. This one is simple - just leave it out. ABC-DEF and ABCDEF are treated as exactly equivalent according to the rules. The fact the passport has the former whilst the ticket has the latter is NOT an issue.

  • The length. Presuming the issue here comes down to the middle name only, then the easiest is to simple leave it out. Whilst the name on the ticket must match the passport, than requirement does NOT apply to the middle name which can be either omitted completely, shortened to a single initial, or shortened to the number of characters require to meet the maximum length.

eg, if the middle name was Jonathan, then all of "" (ie, nothing), "J", or "Jonat" would be considered valid.

Note that at Check-in there will almost certainly be different requirements. Depending on the countries being traveled to/from/through, you may need to provide the full name, including middle name. If this is required, you will be able to enter it on the airlines website in advance (often under the heading of "APIS"), at online check-in, or at the airport check-in.

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    Regarding the last paragraph - I have never seen a system that lets you change your name for APIS purposes at check in time. So it won't be an issue there either. Plus it doesn't ever matter what you enter at check-in. – JonathanReez Jul 8 '18 at 21:45
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    @JonathanReez APIS systems frequently let you change the middle name online, and always allow it for check-in agents. My corporate travel agents book by tickets with only a first initial, but I always change it to the full name during checkin. – Doc Jul 9 '18 at 3:50
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    Is ESTA approval by the airline sensitive to middle names? Otherwise you don't even have to do that. – JonathanReez Jul 9 '18 at 4:25
  • @JonathanReez Eh, I'd say, "It doesn't matter" is an exaggeration. If you were to enter the information of, say, someone on a terrorist watch list, it would probably matter. Also, the information you enter at check-in determines whether you get PreCheck, SSSS, etc. (this is all determined and printed on your boarding pass before you even get to the airport in the U.S.) If your name doesn't reasonably match your Global Entry PASSID/TSA KTN you won't get PreCheck, for example. – reirab Jul 9 '18 at 21:10
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    Middle names are often just merged into the FirstName field in Airline ticketing systems. Joe Frank Oz becomes JOEFRANK OZ. Last names are also a requirement in older systems, but some people simply don't have them. So, in those cases, you just enter your first name twice. Should Japanese Emperor Akihito ever fly on a revenue ticket, his ticket would read: AKIHITO AKIHITO and Cher would be CHER CHER. – Armstrongest Jul 11 '18 at 16:37
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I had a French client who had four first names, and a last name that spanned six words (three last names from noble families). 45 letters give or take without counting the spaces. So for both everyday interactions and things like airplane bookings, he cut that down to two first names (#1 and #4) and his "last" last name, a noble "de XXXX" thing. Something like Jean Marie de Chose (not the real name).

As you can imagine, airline staff and immigration officers had a fun time trying to match his passport ID page to his booking/boarding pass. Especially in Asian countries, where people are a little less familiar with the Latin alphabet and/or European names. His English was also very limited, so when problems happened (every single time), he would point one by one at the four words, first on the booking or boarding pass, then on the passport. Usually that ended with the staff saying "Ohhh Ohhh OK", and that was it.

I suspect your sister will be okay. Airlines know their antiquated systems aren't always up to handling odd names. As long as the front-line humans are satisfied, it's ok.

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    There are descendants form european nobility with 20+ middle/last names. Some system cannot even handle this guy initials lol – jean Jul 10 '18 at 13:16
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    so this rule about your name having to be exactly the same is just pure bullshit... there could have been a lot of people with very different names but still 4 of them matching the ticket... – Laurent S. Jul 10 '18 at 13:55
  • @jean Count Ingolf Christian Frederik Knud Harald Gorm Gustav Viggo Valdemar Aage of Rosenborg (formerly Prince Ingolf ... of Denmark) has ten first names and no middle names and no surname. – Jeppe Stig Nielsen Jul 10 '18 at 15:15
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    So the modern-day reward for being noble is to become inconvenienced by information technology – Nayuki Jul 10 '18 at 19:44
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    @LaurentS. It's not bullshit. What you put in the system had better be right, but given the limits of the system you'll get away with it not being complete. – Loren Pechtel Jul 11 '18 at 5:11
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We had the same issue with my indian husband with 3 words of 40+ characters on the last name. This was dependent on the airline but our travel agent told that there is some specific comment field, that only the airline employees (and maybe travel agents) can fill where the whole name was listed. Into the main system the name was put without spaces and with abbreviation of the last last name. My own name containing the european dotted letter ä was always written as teletype (ä -> ae) as is in the bottom part of the machine readable area of the passport. I think that is your hint with what they might compare the "exactly as in passport".

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