I am in Roma, and I noticed there was a U.S. Embassy 750 meters from my hotel. Seeing that I had only three blank visa pages left (out of the originally available 17), I decided to walk to the U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Italy.
This passport errand was the first thing I did once I checked into my hotel. I noticed that the location of the building was fantastic. In addition, the building itself was huge and grandiose, easily worth more than €10 million. I would have taken pictures, but the place was surrounded by armed guards, and I wanted to be on everyone’s good side since I did not arrange an appointment. There is debate over whether the U.S. has too many or too few military personnel. I can say for certain that the diplomatic missions are well guarded and staffed!
At first, I went to the embassy building. I was advised to go to the consulate building, which was part of the same complex. I still do not know the difference between embassies and consulates and which ones cater to U.S. citizens in a foreign country or foreign citizens requiring U.S. attention.
This visit to a U.S. Embassy is actually my second. In June 1999, I showed up at the airport to fly to London for my first Europe trip. Unfortunately, the passport I had was expired. I pleaded with the staff, and a few phone calls were made to government departments over the course of 45 minutes at the counter, which is still the longest I have spent at an airport desk. Miraculously, they let me on the airplane on condition that I register at the London U.S. Embassy upon arrival. I remember that embassy experience being streamlined. The building there was luxurious too, in a prime location. I was issued a new passport there, with the issue location marked as “London.” I thought it was the neatest thing, so I once thought I would always renew my passport in various cities around the world. The last time I renewed my passport, I mailed it in from home so that plan was short-lived.
Back in Roma, as I approached the gate, one of the guards approached me. I explained what I needed, and when I said I did not have an appointment, he said to wait a few minutes. Then, I was handed a portable land-line telephone and I spoke to a representative for several minutes. She said appointments were standard protocol and that she would give me an answer later. I waited a few more minutes, when I was handed the telephone again, the response being something like, “We have decided to let you in. Come in.”
I walked into the complex, and I walked through a metal detector. I was forced not only to leave my iPhone but also to turn it off. I am certain that this added security measure was inspired by watching the scene in The Dark Knight where Lucius Fox (played by Morgan Freeman), leaves his mobile phone with the security desk but keeps it on for hacking/location purposes.
When I walked into the waiting room, I felt like Vincent Vega (John Travolta) in Pulp Fiction when he first walks into Mia Wallace’s (Uma Thurman) home. Bizarrely, Mia gives instructions to Vincent over a speaker, but her presence is temporarily concealed. Similarly, I was often listening to instructions without identifying the speaker. I saw at least four different representatives, but I was the only customer there. If you want to avoid lines at an embassy, then skip the morning–that is what one representative told me.
I filled out a form, paid $82 via credit card and flipped through the December 2014 issue of Vanity Fair. I was pleased to see that the stack of magazines was up-to-date and not filled with eight-month-old back issues, as is typical in a doctor’s waiting office. Good to know government money is being spent wisely. Interestingly, I was given a price list for the embassy services, and one of the items was “Renouncement of U.S. Citizenship.” That was $2360.
After I submitted my proof of payment, I was told another 20 minutes would be needed for my passport to be amended, which I thought strange since there were four workers and only one customer. However, my passport was ready only five minutes later. The whole process from the time I entered the complex to when I left took only 20 minutes.
I’m jumping around here, but allow me to explain why I needed new passport pages in the first place. I made a couple of critical mistakes during this whole process.
When applying for a passport, almost everyone will, by default, receive a standard 28-page booklet for $140. The 28 pages only translate to 17 usable visa pages since there are many printed information pages. My current passport is from 2009 and will be valid for 10 years. I did not know in 2009 that a) I would be traveling as much as I have since then and b) that one could opt for a 52-page booklet at no additional cost! Generally, I detest situations in which further value could be received at no additional cost but is still an option likely to be overlooked. This scenario is extremely rare because it is so absurd for it to even exist, yet the U.S. government yields it a couple of times for the same document! If I had opted for a 52-page passport booklet in 2009, I would not even need this embassy trip and the painful $82. The bigger passport provides 43 blank visa pages, more than the sum of a standard 28-page booklet plus the set of 24 additional pages that one can purchase! I paid $222 for fewer passport pages than $140 would have bought originally.
Although most visas can be stamped willy-nilly, a few of my visas consume an entire page, such as those for Brasil and Argentina. One full blank page is more valuable than two half-empty pages. I paid $82 for an additional 24 visa pages. What I have just discovered that irks me even more after not having gotten a 52-page booklet in 2009 is that for the same $82, I could have gotten two sets of additional 24 visa pages. Again, another weird situation where no one mentions it to me, but an option I would have exercised. In all likelihood, this mistake will not cost me, but it still annoys me that it happened.
In 2016, the U.S. passport is receiving a design update, eliminating additional pages altogether! The U.S. does not recognize additional passport pages from other countries. In the future version of the passport, if one runs out of visa pages, one will simply have to obtain a new booklet. The U.S. will still offer the option to make the mistake of getting the 28-page passport instead of the 52-page passport. Remember, the next time you renew your passport, check the box for the bigger document at no additional cost!