Monday, June 17, 2013

Fire Breathing Toaster: Passports, Quaint, but Clumsy

by Bill Adler

Can somebody tell me why we still use passports? I mean, not why they're needed, but why we still actually use a clumsy, cumbersome paperback book-like document for travel?

Passports are kind of like the postcards of yore: People used to send postcards of their trips. You know, a professional photo of the Eiffel tower without crowds or an iconic Venice canal photo. Now we send instant photos to friends and family via SMS, or upload photos in batches to Facebook. Postcards were, once upon a time, a great thing when traveling --and they also gave our brain a mini workout as we tried to decipher foreign postage-- but now hardly anyone sends postcards anymore.

The same should be the case for passports. Why do we need a pamphlet-sized document for travel? The customs official in Argentina doesn't need to see the stamp that the customs official placed in our passport when we went to South Korea. It's not as if those stamps are secure anyway: Anyone can make a stamp that looks official. If you visit the British research station in Antarctica, for example, somebody at some point will offer to stamp your passport with an Antarctica stamp. It's a kind of souvenir passport stamp because there's no official Antarctica customs stamp. (You don't need a passport when visiting Antarctica either.)

Passports are clunky and cumbersome to carry. Passports require a separate wallet or case because they don't fit in any regular sized wallet. Passports wilt and bend in humid places like the Central American rain forest, and you can run out of space for stamps if you're a very frequent international traveler. Passports don't even look that great on the outside. It's not as if the United States adorns our passports with a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge, or Japan puts Mount Fuji's photo on the front. Here's an idea: If we're going to continue to use traditional passports, you should be able choose from among ten or so different front cover photos when getting or renewing your passport.

Passports look boring, so we might as well make them small and hide them in our wallets.

Passports should be replaced with driver's license style and sized cards, just like all other forms of identification. Americans can already get a passport card that can be used for returning to the United States from Canada, Mexico and Bermuda (by land or sea only; not for air travel) at European Union countries' national identity cards can be used as IDs for travel within EU countries -- no passport required. (The idea of a national identity card in the United States is contentious issue and I'm not suggesting that. I'm just saying that a lot of countries and travel circumstances get along just fine without a traditional paper passport.)

Some countries paste or staple visas to the inside of passports, but visas can be electronic and read by machines at the country's point of entry and departure. If you need a visa from a country, instead of mailing in your passport or physically visiting a consulate, the visa can be added to your internationally recognized passport card account while you're still in your pajamas: Apply for the visa online and when it's approved, your visa's automatically in the "system." You can double check online, too, if you're nervous because you don't have a paper visa.

Privacy concerns? Privacy is always a concern, but when you travel internationally privacy is already thrown out the window, as far as governments and even airlines go.

A passport card eliminates the need to carry an unwieldy, oversized document. But a driver's license sized passport card would also create new travel opportunities, increasing travel, as well as international commerce and fun. Here's how: You're out for dinner at your favorite restaurant with your boyfriend or girlfriend. After dinner you could wander around, head back home and watch a movie, or look in the window of a local pet store. What you can't do now is take a taxi to the airport and catch the next plane to Bora Bora because neither of you regularly carry your clunky passports. But if your passport was in your wallet, all it would take is a few glasses of wine, checking your favorite air travel app for the next flight, and the next thing you know, you're waking up in a tropical paradise, albeit with a slight hangover. You might need to buy a few things when you get to Bora Bora, but having to buy stuff will also help the local toothbrush, sandal and aspirin sales economy. So, what do you say, governments of the world: Can we replace passports with passport cards?


Bill Adler is a writer. He is the author of "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relationship with Gadgets,", "Outwitting Squirrels,", and a mess of other books. He tweets at @billadler. Fire Breathing Toaster is published on Mondays.

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