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What to Do if You Lose Your Photo ID, and More

UPDATE: June 2012

Check out our updated information on what to do if you lose your ID in 2012.

By Dave Downing

It’s the headache you’ll remember the rest of your life: You’ve flown somewhere for business or pleasure, but midway through your trip, your identification gets lost or stolen. What do you do?

To some extent, the answer depends on whether you are in Berkeley or Bucharest. But no matter where you are, it is important to take action the moment you discover your ID is missing, whether it’s your driver’s license or your passport, because it could take some time to get the matter straightened out.

What follows are specific instructions and tips regarding both scenarios. Print this out and take it with you, or bookmark this column for future reference. It’s good information to have on hand — just pray you never have to use it.

If You Lose Your ID Abroad

Losing your ID while traveling outside the country presents a completely different set of issues and problems than you’d face if you lost it within the confines of the United States. Follow these steps to make recovery as painless as possible.

Find the nearest consulate or embassy. Once you learn your passport is missing, immediately contact the nearest consulate or embassy. (The Department of State’s Web site has a comprehensive list.)

Know the hotline numbers. If you don’t have the list or can’t get to the consulate, contact the Department of State’s Overseas Citizens Service. From outside the U.S., dial 1-317-472-2328. If you are in the U.S. trying to assist a family member who is traveling abroad, call 1-888-407-4747 toll free for assistance.

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Prove your identity. During an interview with a consular officer you will be asked to provide basic personal info, as well as your passport number and date and place of issue, if possible. You will need to supply the names of identifying witnesses at home and abroad; if you are traveling with others, they can be asked to vouch for your identity. In certain circumstances, you might need to have someone back home fax copies of identifying documents, such as a birth certificate, to the consulate. For this reason, it is a good idea to leave copies of these documents with family or friends. If there are no unusual circumstances, this part of the process goes very quickly.

Reapply. Once your identity has been verified, you’ll have to fill out a new passport application, as well as an affidavit regarding the loss/theft of your old passport. If you believe your passport was stolen, you might have to file a local police report.

Pay the fee. Your replacement passport will cost at least $85 (an additional $60 expediting fee may be assessed as well), but it will be valid for the usual 10 years. If you lost your credit cards and cash along with your passport and have no way to pay, you’ll be issued a temporary passport for free just to get you home.

Accept a conditional passport. If the Department of State has lingering doubts as to your identity but is satisfied enough to let you back into the country, they’ll issue you a conditional passport. Once you get home and can provide them with the proper documentation, you can have the passport validated for the full 10 years.

Bottom line: Always carry a photocopy of your passport. Always. It’s the next best thing to having your actual passport. But don’t carry it with your passport or with any other travel documents — put it at the bottom of your suitcase and leave it there. But even that might get misplaced, so as a backup consider scanning your passport and downloading the file onto your laptop or other digital storage device, such as an Apple iPod. If you don’t travel with a laptop or an iPod, email the scanned image to yourself (both as an attachment and inserted into the body of the email) and let it sit in your inbox unopened. Either way, you’ll be able to print out a copy of your passport from your hotel’s business center, an internet caf�, or any other location that has Web access and a printer. (Use the same trick for your driver’s license when traveling domestically.) For more on what to expect if you’ve lost your passport, visit the Department of State’s Web site.

If You Lose Your ID While Traveling in the U.S.

If you are an American citizen and your state-issued driver’s license or photo ID card is lost or stolen while you are in the U.S., the first thing you should do is file a local police report. Both the U.S. Transportation Security Administration and airline representatives stress the importance of this step, which creates a paper trail and pinpoints the loss at a specific time and place.

This is where the definite advice ends, however. The TSA doesn’t address the issue of lost IDs on its Web site, and agency officials that I spoke with claimed it was up to the airlines whether to let passengers without IDs fly — since the airlines are the ones who issue boarding passes. Airline representatives, meanwhile, wouldn’t confirm that it is, in fact, their decision, and although they did acknowledge that they have “security measures in place to deal with such an eventuality,” they wouldn’t elaborate further.

After conversations with several airline reps, it became apparent that lost IDs are handled on a case-by-case basis and that several combinations of conditions can get you on board your flight without proper identification. There are no hard and fast rules, although all the reps agreed on one point: you’ll need to show up at the airport extra early to allow enough time for a security interview. (Moreover, since this is your error and not theirs, if you miss your flight you’ll have to pay the change fee and the difference in airfare for a later flight.)

Though no single issue is likely to make or break your case, here are some of the considerations that airline personnel will use to determine whether to let you fly.

Type of ticket. To airline security agents, the return segment of a round-trip ticket will be reasonably solid evidence that you had your ID when you flew to the destination. Problems might arise if you have a one-way ticket or are using the first half of a round-trip ticket, neither of which would prove that you ever had an ID. (One-way tickets in particular are likely to be red flags to security personnel.)

Traveling companions. If someone with your last name is traveling with you — especially if you have kids in tow — your chances of getting on board increase dramatically. No airline wants the PR headache of splitting up a family over a misplaced driver’s license. A wallet-worn family portrait will help establish your identity too.

Type of payment used. A credit card purchase can be traced by the airline, if need be, to reinforce your identity claim. If you used any other form of payment — or if your ticket was purchased for you by someone else — you may have more trouble making your case.

Unofficial identifiers. If you lost your license or passport only (rather than your entire wallet or purse), the other contents of your wallet — worn credit cards, library cards, business cards, family photos, etc. — can go a long way toward proving you are who you say you are. These are not official documents, of course, but they carry weight in determining your identity.

Demeanor. Airline security personnel deal with fliers all day every day and are quick to pick up on suspicious behavior. They don’t elaborate on what constitutes suspicious behavior, other than to say that they “know it when they see it.” Regardless, try to keep your cool.

Bottom line: Unless you have some extraordinary circumstance — such as an outstanding arrest warrant — you’ll likely make your domestic flight without your ID. Just be sure to give yourself plenty of time and be prepared for extra screening procedures and personal questions. Also, take a minute to pack copies of your license (both sides), birth certificate, passport, or social security card — they may come in handy.

Do You Even Need a Photo ID to Fly?

Now that we have that settled, allow me to confuse the issue altogether.

True or false: If you are traveling on a domestic flight in the U.S., you must have government-issued photo ID in order to pass through a TSA checkpoint.

Answer: False.

According to the TSA’s own Web site, you can board any commercial flight with no photo ID at all as long as you have “two forms of non-photo identification, one of which must have been issued by a state or federal agency.” That means you can board a commercial flight with an insurance card and a social security card or a birth certificate (although you may want to print out that TSA page, just in case you run into trouble at check-in). All the talk about the necessity of having “photo identification” is just that: talk.

Which leads to the next question: what is the purpose of the mandatory-ID craze that has swept the industry since 9/11? Birth certificates are not standardized and, therefore, are easy to fake, and a Social Security card merely has a name and a number on it.

The truth of the matter is that some of the new security measures implemented by the TSA are cosmetic at best; they are designed to make us feel safer when we fly, but do not, in fact, make us any safer. It’s not fun to point out, but every one of the 9/11 hijackers had valid IDs, and some of their names were even listed on FBI watch lists. I’m not suggesting that we ditch checking IDs altogether — just that we do a better job of grounding those who would do us harm.

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