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What is supposed to happen when you arrive at passport control and you hand over your passport to a bored chap behind a sheet of perspex?

Just before covid-19, I accidentally traveled the world on a passport that had been reported as stolen. I only learned of the mistake when coming back to the UK. Before this I had assumed that passport-control involved lots of high tech checks, big databases, electronics and facial recognition systems, and yet somehow I managed an impressive tour of several countries (including known trouble spots and countries with a good reputation for security). Since my tour I have downgraded my expectations to think that all the bored-looking guy actually does is check that the face matches mine, and the passport wasn't printed on a laserjet.

Some background (edited for brevity). My old UK passport had expired, I applied for a new one, waited for ages but nothing happened. I contacted the passport office and was told 'we courier-ed it to you weeks ago'. Despite my protests, they insisted it had been delivered and told me I had to report it stolen and then pay for a new one. I did this, got the new one suspiciously quickly (1 day) and then went travelling a month later.

Only when I went through passport control back in the UK was I told my passport was stolen. (i.e. it was the one I had reported as not being delivered).

So, back to the original question, what's supposed to happen at passport control? doesn't the passport get checked against a list of stolen passports? Is it not checked against a database from the issuing country?


Trying to explain sequence of events....

  1. old passport expired
  2. ordered new passport via passport office.
  3. After 3 months I contacted Passport Office and asked 'where's my passport?' their response was 'we delivered it 2 months ago'.
  4. Passport Office insisted it was delivered (but couldn't provide proof). They then told me if I wanted a replacement I had to report the old one as stolen.
  5. I reported the undelivered passport as being stolen (as requested by the Passport Office)
  6. I applied for a second, new passport.
  7. One day later I received a passport through my letterbox.
  8. I went travelling.

What I now realise was that the passport I received in step '7' was almost certainly the passport that I had actually ordered 3 months ago and was just very, very late. At the time I didn't check the number.

  • 2
    But were you traveling on a stolen passport? I would assume that the passport you never received and the passport you ended up using had different numbers and are separate documents. So you travelled on a valid passport, but have a stolen one in your passport document history. – Peter M Aug 21 at 13:00
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    @Peter M. - the passport I reported stolen had the same number on it as the one I actually traveled on. I think what actually happened is that it got lost in the system and delivered very, very late (about 3 months after I applied for it) – ConanTheGerbil Aug 21 at 13:12
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    so it wasn't stolen? As long as the passport you were using was issued properly - what's the problem? This reads as though you lost a valid passport, so you stole or by other means obtained a fraudulent document and traveled on that. – NKCampbell Aug 21 at 18:50
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    @NKCampbell The problem was that it had been reported as stolen. – Mark Johnson Aug 26 at 11:06
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This will depend on the countries involved, and potentially the airport. There certanly are international databases of lost and stolen travel documents, e.g. the one run by Interpol, however in general countries don't directly communicate their lists to each other and certainly don't allow all countries direct access to their own passport databases. In many cases the port of entry will be checking a local mirror of international database, or even a reduced list of unexpired stolen passports.

All this means there can be considerable delay between you reporting your documents stolen to the issuing country and an official in another country (or indeed the airline you are travelling with) having the opportunity to identify it as stolen, assuming their infrastructure is set up to check.

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In my experience, the level of checks is highly variable:

  • at many land borders, where there is often a lot of cross-border traffic, it is not unusual for officers to wave through the vast majority of people, or even for border posts to be closed at times. They often will only stop people with plates that identify them as not from the local area, for instance. If they stop you, they may just go a quick run through the passport to check for obvious signs of forgery, but while they are standing there next to your car they just don’t have access to any database, so the only way for them to check is to go back inside and so on, which will delay everyone else.

    In countries where they are not allowed to strike, that’s actually a way for them to put pressure: in France we call it “grève du zèle”, it means they will suddenly start checking a lot more, which will slow down the flow through the border, cause queues and delay, and will soon be escalated.

  • in many places, the queue for “locals” will see anyone with an ID in hand either waved through, or the ID given a cursory check. It may vary quite a bit, but French passport control officers for instance do it a lot.

  • in other places they do more checks, though they often just check their national databases for people who are wanted, who are not welcome, or check for the existence of a matching electronic visa (ETA, ESTA, eVisitor, whatever they call it).

There are indeed international databases of stolen passports, but:

  • the country who produced the passport must cooperate and send the data to that database. It may be a long process, often done in batches with large intervals. There may be a large number of intermediate processes and databases in the middle.

  • the country you are visiting must use that database. And it needs to have a way for officers to check it. Obviously in some countries just scanning the passport will automatically do all checks, while in other it will just check the local database and a separate query must be done to check the global database. There may be delays in updates all along the way. Some places may have poor connectivity so they would only have a small local database rather than direct online access to the full thing.

In many locales, passport control operations are severely underfunded. You can see officers using PCs that seem to go back a decade or more. Systems are often very slow to change.

There is very little incentive for many countries to put a lot of effort into that. They all talk about security and controls, but when it’s time to pay...

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  • 7
    English equivalent of "grève du zèle" might be "work-to-rule" – user253751 Aug 21 at 14:40
  • By the way, "if it works, don't fix it" applies - hence the PCs. Actually the world might even be better if everyone followed this principle. – user253751 Aug 21 at 14:41
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    @user253751 Or perhaps "malicious compliance" – Azor Ahai -him- Aug 21 at 20:10

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