A Question of Identity

A Brno numbskull who doesn't need a passport © Ricky Yates

A Brno numbskull who doesn’t need a passport © Ricky Yates

In early December this year, my current British passport will expire. As the United Kingdom does not issue identity cards to its citizens, my passport is the only accepted form of ID that I have whilst living in continental Europe. In 2016, I will be travelling to the UK twice, as well as to Poland for the Eastern Archdeaconry Synod, not forgetting my now monthly trips to Dresden. All of this is before thinking about where Sybille and I might want to go on holiday together!

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office website states that I must allow four weeks from my application and supporting documentation, including my current passport, arriving at the Passport Office in the UK, before I can expect to receive my new passport. During that time, I will be unable to travel anywhere beyond the borders of the Czech Republic. As a consequence, these past few days I have been studying my diary, trying to work out when on earth there is a time-slot of at least four weeks, when I will not need to travel.

Recently, several people have said to me, ‘Surely you don’t need your passport just to travel to Dresden and back on the train?’ For them, and for any one else thinking along these lines, I will recount my rather ‘interesting’ experiences when travelling back to Prague today, having led and preached at the English-language Anglican Evening Prayer service at the Frauenkirche, Dresden, yesterday evening.

Having boarded my train at Dresden Hauptbahnhof, I found myself a seat in a compartment where the only other passenger was a young lady of Asian appearance. Soon after the train set off, two burly German Polizei walked along the corridor and outside our compartment, stopped two young German men walking in the opposite direction, and asked to see and check their respective IDs. Having done this, rather than walking on down the train as I expected, they instead entered our compartment and asked to see our passports.

I duly produced mine which was then subjected to a thorough examination. Herr Polizei held it up to the light to check for watermarks and the like. I think he was also a little dubious because, being nearly ten years old, it isn’t biometric. Noticing the stamp of the Czech Foreign Police granting me ‘Temporary residence’ that is ‘neomezený/unlimited’, he asked, in English, if I lived in Prague. I gave him quite a shock when I spoke back to him in German 🙂 My passport was returned to me 🙂

However, the young lady got a complete grilling. It didn’t help her cause that she appeared to neither speak German or English – or if she did, she was too shy to do so. And if I dare say so – because she wasn’t white Caucasian 🙁 Both Polizei didn’t think her passport photo looked like her. They insisted she took off the large scarf around her neck so they could compare her skin colour with that in the photograph. The also studiously studied the visa in her passport, (presumably a Schengen one), querying its validity.

There followed a phone call to headquarters, checking her details, with the whole business lasting around fifteen minutes, before she was finally given the all clear and her passport was returned. One funny side effect of all this was that neither of us ever got our tickets checked. The female ticket inspector came past twice, but because of the police presence, she left us in peace!

When the train arrived at the Czech border town of Decín, a tall blonde Czech young lady joined us in the compartment. Decín is also where the Deutsche Bahn train staff get off and are replaced by those of Ceské dráhy. Presumably both Polizei officers got off too.

However, shortly after the train left Decín, who should come along the corridor and open the compartment door – two Czech Policie! The Czech young lady flashed her Czech ID card out of her purse at the same time as flashing her mascaraed eyelids, and she was immediately told that all was fine 😉 The inspection of my passport and Czech residency document took a little longer but no query was raised. But the poor Asian young lady had her passport looked at, photograph and actual likeness compared, visa examined. It wasn’t quite the third degree of the German Polizei, but still lasted at least three minutes.

Therefore after today’s journey, I have no intention whatsoever, of travelling to Dresden and back, without a passport. The mind boggles what would have happened if I’d tried to do so today.

But not only do I have to find a minimum four week time slot when I can be without a passport, I also have to make a deep hole in my bank account to pay for the new one. A ten-year British passport now costs £83.00, together with a further £19.86 in courier delivery charges – £102.86 in total. And I have find a safe way, no doubt also expensive, of getting my application and associated documentation to the Passport Office in the UK to start the process 🙁

And to answer those who have said, ‘Can’t you get a temporary passport whilst your new one is being issued?’ Yes – it is possible to get an ‘Emergency Travel Document’, but – costing another £95.00!!!!

35 comments to A Question of Identity

  • Fergus

    I should imagine that this has something to do with the partial break up (de facto, if not de jure) of the Schengen agreement over the past six months or so. In July I travelled on a train from Prague to Bratislava which had originally come from Berlin and was ending up in Budapest- no documents were checked at all, even at the Czech-Slovak border. I sincerely doubt that would happen today and your experience seems to confirm this!

    A word on ‘Emergency Travel Documents’ which you have rightly turned down (!). Not only are they expensive but they themselves take some days to process and, if issued by the British Embassy, they are (usually) only valid for one trip back to the UK where it is expected that one will trot to Petty France (or regional equivalent) and apply for a new, full passport! I had to use one when I lost my passport in Prague and so know the process all too well!

    • Ricky

      Hello Fergus,

      How nice to have you commenting here again! I’m sure your first paragraph explanation for my experience today is basically correct. The train you travelled on last July is effectively the same one as I was on today. It started in Hamburg & then via Berlin, Dresden to Prague, before going on to Bratislava and Budapest. I’ve now done this journey a number of times since last summer. Whilst I’ve seen police on the train, I’ve never previously been asked by them, to produce ID.

      Thank you for warning about ‘Emergency Travel Documents’. I shall steer well clear.

  • John

    I just had mine renewed. I sent it to the UK just before Christmas and got it back about 3 weeks later. If its just a renewal then it is quick.

    Dont forget you may also need to show id when collecting things from the post office in CZ or when renewing metro cards..

    • Ricky

      I think the FCO are just covering themselves by saying four weeks. You’re the second person I’ve heard of with recent experience, saying it took less time. But the point you make in your second paragraph is very true. I regularly have to rescue parcels from the post office & need my passport to do so.

      • John

        Also you should have your passport when driving in case the police stop you!

        I had heard horror stories of it taking 3 months when there the delays in the passport office 2 years ago.

        The ‘simplest’ way is to go in person to a passport office.

        • Ricky

          Officially, you should have ID with you all the time in the CR. But carting your passport around with you all the time is a real pain. I keep a photocopy of the ID page & a photocopy of my Czech residency, proving my address, in my wallet, which I always have with me.

          £128.00 & a big hole in my limited time in the UK, if I have to go in person to a passport office.

  • John

    There is a one week expedited service in the UK. If you are staying there for over a week then you wouldnt need to go to the office in person, but its more expensive again..

    • Ricky

      Indeed John – I am planning to be in the UK for nearly two weeks in April. But each night I’ll be at a different address or a conference centre, so where would I ask the Passport Office to send it to? And the cost…..

  • Myra Blackmon

    We had a couple of similar experiences with the German Polizei when traveling between the Czech Republic and Germany. Our US passports expire this year. Word is we need to renew them right away, as this is the tenth anniversary of the requirement to have a passport to travel to Canada or Mexico and there are thousands upon thousands expiring this year. Expensive and tedious. There are services here that can take away the aggravation and speed up the process, but that adds several hundred dollars to the process.


    • Ricky

      Hi Myra,

      That change, requiring Americans to have a passport to travel to Canada or Mexico, rather than just producing their Driver’s Licence, more than doubled the number of US citizens holding a passport. I gather around 60% still don’t have one! Best of luck with getting yours & Tom’s renewed without too greater an expense.

  • Janet Berkovic

    Just go ahead and do it when you find a four-week gap! Don’t leave it till the last minute – you can get the renewal starting from when your current passport runs out, not from when you submit the forms for a new one. It’s definitely a pain, though, and compares badly with getting a new driving licence, which I did last year. I didn’t have to lift a finger or go anywhere, or even send a photo – they lifted it from my passport records! And it was done in a week.

    • Ricky

      Hi Janet,

      The only possibility I can currently spot is is in October-November when there is a five-week gap between Dresden services as October has five Sundays. I know that any new passport will be valid for longer than ten years. My current passport is valid from 6th April 2006 until 6th December 2016, the latter date being ten years on from the expiry date of its predecessor.

      I presume from what you say, you are still driving on a UK Driving Licence. I exchanged mine for a Czech one as I don’t have a UK address & I wasn’t living in an Oxfordshire Rectory which is what UK licence said. I presume you have a UK address to use – presumably of a relative.

  • David Hughes

    That’s the way you should travel on trains in old Communist Europe – suspicious police carefully examining your documents. At least you didn’t fall for the old Great Escape trick but replied in German to the police officer’s English question.

    Did you not speak to the young woman who was travelling with you and find out if she spoke English or German? It can’t have been too pleasant for her and a friendly word or two might have given her a warmer feeling about Europe.

    On the passport, looks like you’ll have to pay up, which you would anyway, and take the time out to get it sorted. But, in comparison to what the young lady was treated to, it’s what some people call a “First World Problem”.

    I’m sure the rules have changed, and not just because of the rationalisation of staff in the British embassies in Central Europe, but in 2009/2010 my passport was stolen and I was able to get a full 10-year passport issued by the embassy in Prague. You’ve got contacts there so maybe you could dig around for an answer.

    • Ricky

      Hi David,

      It did seem a little like a blast from the past as you suggest. But Herr Polizei was rather taken aback when I did reply to him in German!

      I tried to speak to the young lady but, as I wrote, I don’t think she had English or German. I think she was a Thai national, from a brief glimpse I had of the cover of her passport. The slightly odd thing about her was how little she had with her. I think that she was already on the train when I got on in Dresden & therefore had travelled from Berlin or even Hamburg, where train starts from. Yet she only had a clear plastic bag containing a couple of yoghurts, a carton of fruit juice & a packet of biscuits as sustenance for her trip, together with a relatively small handbag. I got off at Praha Holešovice station so I don’t know where exactly she was headed.

      Regarding my passport renewal, it is a case of pay-up & make time for the best way of doing it. A ‘first world problem’ I do agree. The whole system has changed completely since your 2009/10 experience. All new ten year passports are issued from Passport Offices in the UK, regardless of where you live. The consular staff at the British Embassy who I do know well, only issue Emergency Travel Documents to people who need them, not new passports.

  • Martina Johnson

    That is a very British problem. Having passport as the only form of id can be tricky. As a fallback, if travelling to Dresden by car you should be okay. In the 10 plus years I have been doing this journey I was never stopped. The passport office is quicker during the off season months such as January or September October when the last holiday just happened and the next one is still too far ahead.

    • Ricky

      Hello Martina – yes it is a very British problem & the Czech Foreign Police don’t help. If you are a non-EU citizen living in the Czech Republic, a situation I may be in if Boris & Co get their way 🙁 , then you are now issued with a photographic ID card similar to those held by Czech citizens. Two American members of my congregation have them & they were accepted as ID without question, during a recent trip to Austria. As EU citizens, both my wife & I have flimsy certificates of temporary residence which prove our Czech address but don’t have a photograph.

      As you say, you are less likely to be stopped if driving. However, back in September when returning from Croatia in my car, the Austrian police stopped me at the border & checked both my passport & that of my passenger.

      I’m very aware that applying in the ‘off season’ will almost certainly mean less delays which is why I’m looking at a five-week period in October/November, as I said in answer to an earlier comment.

  • Sean Mccann

    Hi Ricky,
    Your post raises a question (as in your reference to ‘Boris and co.’ above) many Irish people are pondering at present. If the ‘Brexit’ goes ahead and Northern Ireland is outside the EU as part of the UK; how will that affect travel, transport, imports and exports between the Republic of Ireland and the UK and even more so travel between both parts of the island of Ireland? Ireland remained outside of the Schengen Agreement along with the UK because the majority of Irish exports go to the UK and we have a common land border on the island of Ireland; will our nations now find themselves embroiled in red tape and prolonged diplomatic and political strife if we try to keep our close ties while one of us is no longer in the EU? And more ominously will the re emergence of a ‘controlled’ border on the island lead to the more criminal and terrorist inclined of all sides returning to the pointless bloodshed of our past? I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say that no one wants any such unintended consequence. Thanks as always Ricky.

    • Ricky

      Hi Sean,

      As always, thank you for this most thoughtful comment. The issues you raise about the problems that would arise on the island of Ireland, are just one of many examples of the absurdity of a ‘Brexit’. I have ideas for possible future post on the whole EU referendum issue – watch this space! In the meantime, I have written a piece for this website http://www.reimaginingeurope.co.uk/ which I’m promised will be published on Monday 29th February – my ‘Postcard from Prague’.

      Now published: http://www.reimaginingeurope.co.uk/postcard-from-prague/

  • Sean Mccann

    Thank you for the link Ricky, I’ve had a quick glance at the website and can’t wait to have a ‘good read’ of such excellent articles. I am always nervous of ascribing motives or ‘putting words in mouths’ of people whose viewpoint or lived experience I may not understand properly; however, there seems to me to be a great deal of ’emotional nationalism’ in the words and deeds of those who would lead Britain out of the EU. Also a longing for the ‘glory days’ of Imperial Britain and the ‘un-setting sun’. As an Irishman I am all too familiar with both good and bad sides of emotional nationalism and a hankering after a glorious past. Change is hard to accept, here in Ireland many young people see our current Republic as a failed state which betrayed the ‘glorious vision’ of the leaders of the 1916 Rising . How much harder must it be for a people who ‘Ruled the Waves’ to adjust to being one of the leading states in a union of equals? I am looking forward to receiving your postcard, God bless.

    • Ricky

      I concur with what you say, Sean. There is a certain amount of ’emotional nationalism’ here in the CR, very much related to the language. It is one of the things I mention in my postcard. In my opinion, it would be national suicide for the UK to leave the EU which I hope is a view that will eventually prevail.

      • Sean Mccann

        Hi again Ricky,

        That was an excellent ‘postcard’, thank you. I am struck by the similarity of response by some Czech people and the corresponding Irish element – the (sometimes intense) dislike, fear and denigration of ‘Foreigners’ – immigrants or refugees; and the total loss of memory about their own compatriots who were refugees and immigrants historically, (on a massive scale in Ireland’s case). Of course, when these people are reminded or challenged about their attitude you are told that ‘was different’. Sadly, in Ireland our Czech fellow Europeans are among those labelled ‘Foreigners’ by this section of society! I agree with your opinion about national suicide above, I’m an unapologetic Europhile, while seeing the many faults and problems it possesses I believe the EFTA/EEA/EEC/EC/EU has prevented further pointless war and promoted peace and understanding on our continent and is a great force for good. Thank you Ricky.

        • Ricky

          Hi again Sean – Thank you for complimenting my ‘postcard’. You draw out a very good & similar parallel to what I described. Unfortunately, so many people see their ‘past case’ as different to that we are facing today. I concur entirely with the latter part of your comment – whatever its faults, the EU & it predecessors have done & continue to do, much good.

  • Jonathan

    Hi Ricky, for the record, the most unpleasant border police I’ve ever met are the ones on UK borders, particularly at Leeds/Bradford Airport:)

    Re David’s comment, I’m not sure what the Communists have to do with the above episode, more the confused immigration policies of Paní Merkelová, but I like his nostalgic tone and the reference to the Great Escape (although they were Nazis). (Hi David:)

    The EU is slipping into the abyss, and the UK shouldn’t vote to leave because of pathetic intra-tory party squabbling but because it’s no longer fit for purpose and an insult to democracy.

    • Ricky

      Hi Jonathan – Sorry to hear about your bad experience(s) of the UK Border Force as I believe it is now called.

      Regarding David’s comment, he was rather guilty of combining the Nazis with the Communists though both had certain similar traits.

      The EU has issues to address, but far better together than separately. However, the referendum is now an inter Tory party squabble – Dave v Boris.

    • David Hughes

      Hi Jonathan,

      How are things with you?

      Not really confusing the two. Just thinking back to those numerous Cold War thrillers, and even earlier things like The Lady Vanishes and the great Eric Ambler novel Uncommon Danger, even to the masterful Hitchcock version of The 39 Steps, that featured cops and spies/wanted men on trains.

      We went from Prague to Montenegro and back by train in 2013. And I was most excited when the Servian (that’s nostalgia for you) border guards searched our sleeping compartment, even going up into the space above the ceiling.

      I have some sympathy with your dislike of the EU but tend to agree with Ricky, though not necessarily for the same reasons, that the UK should remain part of it.

      Ricky, is Latin not a requirement for CofE vicars any longer? You’ve mixed up your inters and your intras.

      • Ricky

        Hello again, David – most of you comment is addressed to Jonathan so I have nothing to add. However, before correcting my Latin, you might like to look at your spelling of ‘Serbian’ 😀

        • David Hughes

          Absoultely, Ricky. Servia’s obsolete and that’s why I wrote “that’s nostalgia for you” after in brackets. In English it was common before 1914 to call the country Servia. My much-loved Chamber’s Concise Gazetteer of the World published in 1906 has it that way and suggests a book of 1862 called Servia and the Servians by the Rev William Denton, vicar of St Bartholomew, Cripplegate, as further reading.

          There’s a brief discussion of changing place names with special reference to Servia/Serbia here: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=22913 with some other handy links.

  • Jonathan

    Hi again Ricky, I won’t bother you any more with this side-bar conversation other than to point out that David’s reference to the link re Serbia includes a couple of comments about the name of the country we reside in, to which you might wish to refer in a future blog.
    The current name (the Czech Republic/Ceská republika) still fails to achieve total acceptance, in both English and Czech, despite other countries in the world using the same format. “Czechia” seems to be the main alternative, but that has many detractors too. “Czechland” has also been suggested (as per Scotland), while the appalling conversational “Czech” should be forbidden:)

    • Ricky

      Hi Jonathan – I don’t see the problem with the ‘Czech Republic’ and I am not a fan of ‘Czechia’. There is a Czech young lady who sometimes comments here, who uses ‘in Czech lands’ when referring in a historical context, to what is now the Czech Republic and I think that is quite appropriate. But she uses two words, not one! I’m 100% with you in your condemnation of ‘the appalling conversational “Czech.”’ ‘Czech’ is either the Czech language or an individual native of this country – it is not the country itself.

  • I concur with Fergus back in the first comment that your experience was probably due to the tightening of border controls because of the refugee crisis. I can remember us only having to wave our passports at the French border officials when going to Normandy in past years, but it was noticeable that they were carefully scrutinised last year and of course they are always scanned on entry to and exit from the UK. I’m glad you’ve found a window of opportunity in the autumn to renew your passport.

    • Ricky

      I’m sure both you & Fergus are right regarding the reason for the very thorough inspection of passports on my return journey from Dresden to Prague. Having said that, I went to Dresden & back on Wednesday 2nd afternoon/evening, and neither the Czech or German police checked my passport. However, I still needed it to confirm to ticket inspectors, the validity of my train ticket which I’d purchased online some days earlier.

      One unfortunate outcome of my meeting on Wednesday evening in Dresden, is that my five week gap to renew my passport in October/November, has become a four week gap, as the November Frauenkirche service has been moved to the second Sunday in November from the normal third Sunday. And before you ask, we only planned services in detail, to the end of August. The next planning meeting on 20th June will agree themes from September to end of 2016.

  • Em

    How odd; I can’t recall ever being checked on that particular route. That is quite disconcerting, as is the cost of your new passport! Mine is up in July and I’ve had a tricky time finding a slot to get it renewed in as well. I had an appointment and went but apparently the passport photo size has been changed from 1.5×2 to 2×2 and they wouldn’t accept my photo/allow me to renew. *sigh* Anyhow, I second Martina’s suggestion about driving if for some reason your window doesn’t work. Good luck!

    • Ricky

      I agree – it was odd, Em. I’ve seen the German police on the train before now but never been troubled by them. Then when I went last Wednesday, just for the day for a planning meeting, there were no police checks at all.

      Getting a new passport is going to be quite a nightmare. And as I said in reply to Perpetua, the five-week slot I thought I should have in October-November, has just become a four-week slot with a change in the date of the November Frauenkirche service. Best of luck with getting your American passport renewed too!