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I am trying to find a plausible answer to a question about a scenario in a movie that involves travel across borders in Europe and what is possible in real life.

Question:
If I am in a country that does not have an embassy of my passport country, and my passport is lost while there, can I travel without any ID to a second country that DOES have an embassy in order to get a new passport or ID (or any other excuse that can get you across the border)?

Context:
In the movie The Bourne Identity, Jason Bourne was able to get from Imperia, Italy to Zurich, Switzerland with only cash using the train. At the time he had no ID whatsoever on him, just cash.

Many people wonder how Jason got from Italy to Switzerland without any form of ID. The movie was filmed/released in 2002 and at that time Switzerland was not part of the Schengen area, so I am pretty sure there would have been ID checks when crossing the border.

Personal experience:
I travelled from Germany to Denmark (both Schengen countries) in 2022 by train and was asked to show my passport which I thought was very strange. Don't recall if I had to show my passport when I travelled from Germany to the Netherlands. Surprisingly, I travelled by plane within Schengen countries a lot and was not once asked to show my passport, only when I travelled by train.

So I am wondering if there is some rule or excuse that could get you across borders anywhere, preferably throughout Europe for the sake of this question, either now or before when the movie was filmed, without any ID at all in special circumstances, like the one mentioned above ie "I lost my passport and am on my way to the nearest embassy in the next country to get a new one?" or if this is "just a movie" in this case. And movies aside, if I did get in a situation where I lost my ID and the nearest embassy is in another country, what can I do? Can I go there (cross the border) without ID?

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    Jason Bourne is a fictional secret agent who thus has many tricks for crossing borders which are not usable by regular people, or by anyone in real life. But more realistically, I vacationed near the French-Swiss border in the 90s and crossed the border many times without ever once seeing a border guard. Commented Feb 19 at 14:57
  • Usually they allow sending through post like Embassy A in country B so you could send them through post each mission serves a location and thus may cover your region if its not there. Get a police report it will be helpful I did the same. Commented Feb 19 at 17:22
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    Even though in 2002 Switzerland was not yet part of Schengen it was quite common that border police would not ask to see everyone's passport. With a bit of skill you could evade those. Commented Feb 19 at 17:27
  • The novel was published in 1980.
    – shoover
    Commented Feb 19 at 22:10
  • @shoover I am talking about the movie. Commented Feb 20 at 11:25

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The Germany to Denmark case probably falls under the “temporary reintroduction of internal border checks” due to the ongoing migrant crisis.

On the other hand, checks at the border between Schengen and Switzerland before Switzerland joined Schengen, while systematic in theory, were actually far from being so at the time, especially on local trains (remember that there's even a tram line in Basel which goes through France on the way between stops in Switzerland! Definitely no systematic checks there...).

You were more likely to meet customs officers of the Schengen countries checking if you had a lot of cash than any passport control checks. And whenever those happened, they were pretty lax, I once got through the check with my Paris travel card!

But in any case:

  • The US most definitely have representation in Italy: one embassy in Rome, 3 consulates in Florence, Milan and Naples, so going to Switzerland definitely wouldn't make sense, especially from Imperia.
  • In the case of Italy, even if there was no US representation, it would make more sense to get to another Schengen country rather than Switzerland (at the time).
  • In countries without representation, there are usually agreements with other countries to serve as intermediaries for some of the consular services, or other similar arrangements.
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  • Ahh thanks I didn't know about the "“temporary reintroduction of internal border checks” due to the ongoing migrant crisis" thing, just thought it was weird they checked my passport in between Schengen countries. Learnt something that solved my confusion. Out of curiosity, do you have any news source for this temporary internal border checks thing? Commented Feb 19 at 11:10
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    You can find a list of Schengen countries which reintroduced border checks on the website of the European Commission Commented Feb 19 at 12:20
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    @Ihavemanyquestions I travelled very regularly between France and Switzerland at the time. Checks were definitely not systematic, though, this being 20 years ago, I wouldn't be able to give you a proportion of the times there were checks or not (though I expect them to be more frequent on long-distance trains than on local/regional ones). Even if border guards board the train, it can often happen that (like ticket checks) they get stuck with one problematic passenger and get to the next station before having gone through the whole train.
    – jcaron
    Commented Feb 19 at 12:37
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    Also, by road, even 40 years ago, the border between France and Switzerland was just a big open thing. This is a typical road crossing the border in the Basel area. Of course if you get caught without ID crossing the border there you're in trouble, but the likelihood of it happening was infinitesimal: I took that road twice daily for 3 years on my way to school, not sure I ever saw a guard of either country on that road. The next crossing was manned part of the time on the Swiss side only. The next ones (much larger) were indeed manned all the time.
    – jcaron
    Commented Feb 19 at 12:47
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    This is a tram stop in France between two tram stops in Switzerland. Definitely no systematic checks there. The situation may be different on the Italian side since it's more mountainous so there are possibly less roads and rail lines crossing the border so there may have been more checks there, but I would be surprised if they had ever been systematic. This would completely break down the border crossings of the thousands of people who work across the border and go back and forth every day.
    – jcaron
    Commented Feb 19 at 12:54
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In the movie The Bourne Identity, Jason Bourne was able to get from Imperia, Italy to Zurich, Switzerland with only cash using the train.

The character Jason Bourne/David Webb was born in Nixa, Missouri and therefore would be a US citizen.

The Swiss would then, no doubt, express surprise at the claim that the United States does not have an embassy/consulate in Italy.

So I am wondering if there is some rule or excuse that could get you across borders anywhere ... like the one mentioned above ie "I lost my passport and am on my way to the nearest embassy in the next country to get a new one?"

Many countries have aggreements with other countries to assist their citizens where no consulate exists.

This would be the general rule and would be known to border guards who expect the traveller to have a valid travel document.

And movies aside, if I did get in a situation where I lost my ID and the nearest embassy is in another country, what can I do?

Look either at the main foreign office/state department site or embassy/consulate sites in neighbouring countries (or well known friendly countries) which will contain information what to do in such circumstances.

  • Pakistan assists Iranian citizens in North America
  • France for many EU countries in Madagascar
  • Commonwealth countries for other Commonwealth countries
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    And as an additional example using two countries listed in the question: Switzerland provides support for US citizens in Iran: eda.admin.ch/countries/iran/en/home/representations/embassy/… --an for the question: Zurich is not the capital and so no/few embassy and few consular offices. Bern (or Geneva because UN offices) would be a better excuse. Commented Feb 19 at 11:07
  • Remember also, Consulates are responsible for Passports and visas. Some embassies don't have a consulate department in their building where their consulate is situated elsewhere (in Berlin the US consulate is about 12 km away from the embassy). Commented Feb 19 at 11:54
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    @GiacomoCatenazzi for some reason, many missions to the UN in Geneva do not have consular sections, or, if they do, they are limited to consular activities other than providing visa and passport services. At least this is true of every one of the (relatively small number of) countries I've looked at -- including the US. Bern is the place to go if you need a US passport in Switzerland. Mark Johnson: in the Netherlands, the US embassy is in Wassenaar (near the Hague) and also has no passport services; these are provided only at the consulate general in Amsterdam, 50 km away.
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 19 at 12:54
  • @phoog: right. IIRC smaller countries (and many African countries) has just embassies in Geneva, e.g. Niger (honestly, the first I looked for): eda.admin.ch/eda/en/fdfa/representations-and-travel-advice/… Yeah, largest countries may have consular and embassies on different places, but also it should be considered that consular office is very broad term: some do not offer consular services, but they are mostly about economic representation (or other reasons). Commented Feb 19 at 13:34
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    @KristvanBesien how do you figure that Switzerland has no capital? Is it because Swiss law only establishes that Bern is the "official seat of government" without using the word "capital"? By that logic the US also has no capital, and I rather suspect France and the UK don't, either. A more workable definition of "capital" is, in the absence of a constitutionally or statutorily established capital, the constitutionally or statutorily established or indeed de facto seat of government. By that definition, Switzerland unambiguously has a capital.
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 19 at 22:51
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Hollywood-grade accuracy, really. Especially considering the lack of knowledge about international travel and geography Americans have.

On the other question, about how to replace your ID if lost, I have an actual example. In Macao,there are almost no Consulates. Portugal, of course, Philippines, and one African country I believe. So as a French citizen, if I lived in MO, and lost my passport, as a non-PR (permanent residents of HK and MO can visit the other SAR with just their ID), I'd have to get in touch with the Consulate in HK, and probably wait for their next round of duty in MO. Twice. One for the application, and one to withdraw it.

If I'm lucky, I might be able to get a temporary passport on the first appointment (if I let them know in advance, and they accept to produce it in HK and hand-carry it to me). In which case I could use that passport to go to HK and pick up the new one.

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    Wouldn't you be able to get a ETD from the Portuguese embassy to go to HK pick your passport (or to France directly)? Commented Feb 19 at 11:20
  • There's no Portuguese embassy in Macau, only a Consulate. 😁 And since the French Consulate in HK covers both HK and MO, I don't think so.
    – dda
    Commented Feb 19 at 11:22
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Last year, while traveling in Italy, my passport and residency permit were stolen. I reported the theft at a local police station in Florence. When I contacted my embassy for assistance, I learned that their jurisdiction was in Sweden, so I sent all the necessary documents there, including a return slip. Surprisingly, I received a new passport without any further action on my part. The level of support you receive from your embassy might vary significantly depending on your country of origin; those from third-world countries might find it more challenging to get such prompt assistance.

Traveling without an ID, I managed to take a train from Italy to Switzerland. While most places don't routinely check IDs, random spot checks are possible, so it's important to carry a copy of the police report for the stolen or lost documents. The journey took an unexpected turn when I traveled to Denmark. Unlike other EU countries, Denmark has distinct rules and did not accept the documentation I had. They questioned my fluency in English and ultimately did not trust the paperwork issued abroad, leading to my return to Germany via ferry. Despite the inconvenience, it turned out to be an enjoyable trip.

It's worth noting that there is no EU-wide legislation recognizing police reports from one country as valid in another, which can lead to complications when traveling. The EU also lags in implementing digital ID laws, making it difficult to use digital copies or photos of IDs as valid identification, a stark contrast to countries like India where digital IDs are readily accepted.

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  • Amazing story. Out of curiosity, can I ask, why were you travelling from Italy to Switzerland without your ID? You mentioned your embassy sent you your new passport without any further action so I assume you weren't travelling to/through Switzerland to pick it up and that you travelled before you received the replacement. Not nosy, just curious - when I was in Europe I was tempted to do all my travels without ID just for the thrill of not needing to go though ID checks within Schengen areas (and as I said luckily I didn't do that since I was checked on my way to Denmark). Commented Feb 20 at 11:44
  • @Ihavemanyquestions I had to attend Vipasana session in Bern SZ , and my embassy sent the passport to my friends address in DK and I had to collect my passport from Copenhagen. Turns out DK does through ID check if you are brown. (Though it’s illegal since you are in Schengen space) they are not supposed to refuse you entry. Commented Feb 20 at 12:44
  • @SaranshSharma SZ is Eswatini, the former Swaziland. I think you mean CH, Switzerland. (SZ is also the abbreviation for the canton of Schwyz, but Bern is also not there.)
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 20 at 13:52
  • Yes that’s what I meant sorry it’s CH Commented Feb 20 at 17:10
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Spot checks do happen on some intra-Schengen borders, especially land

Note that :

If you are a EU/EEA/CH citizen, you may go to any other EU/EEA/CH embassy if your own country doesn't hold a representation there (Same thing for Commonwealth, Portugal/Brazil...), and they would be able to sort the issue.

For other countries, most have agreements between them regarding such emergency situations.

In all cases, you would call the nearest embassy of your own country for directions

Can I go there (cross the border) without ID?

The issue is grey and mostly depends on whether you are a Union citizen or not, but, in most cases (like Germany) you can't enter without ID.

Either way, if you really needed to go to another country to pick up your ID from the embassy (instead of for exemple getting it by post), another embassy would have probably delivered you a Emergency Travel Document for you to go there.

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Its a movie. If you can pretend that Zürich is the capital of Switzerland and that its trams are Czech and its population speaks with an Austrian dialect you can also pretend that there is no border.

In reality of course the US embassy is in Bern (and is in a rather plain modern office building), even though Bern is, technically speaking, also not the capital. Switzerland doesn't have one.

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  • Bern is, however, the "official seat" of the federal government, a title that it shares with the District of Columbia in the US, and a more officially established title than is held by Paris and, I suspect, London. Yet nobody seriously asserts that the US and France lack a capital, technically or otherwise.
    – phoog
    Commented Feb 19 at 22:55
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Before Brexit, it was uncommon for the French border guards at the Eurotunnel terminal in Folkestone to check passports — they normally just waved you through, if they’d even bothered to man the passport control booth. That was between two EU members, but it was crossing the Schengen border, since the UK was never in Schengen. Going the other way, the UK border guards in Calais always checked passports.

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