Renewing a UK Passport in Russia

Renewing a UK passport in Russia

Article by Simon Green

It’s no secret that getting a Russian visa is the bane of most expats’ lives unless they have the luxury of corporate assistance which is not a pleasure afforded to us mere mortals. However to even apply for a visa, one must first be in possession of a passport which has a minimum of two unstamped pages and at least six months to run after the expiry date of said visa; a situation that was brought home to me in no uncertain terms when I went to apply for yet another one.

In bygone days, renewing your passport in Russia was a cinch that saw one rocking up to the consular section of the British Embassy here in Moscow, presenting the appropriate documents, then lo and behold, two weeks later you trotted back down to the Embassy to collect your duly delivered new one. Would that it were so simple nowadays, alas it isn’t!

UK citizens residing in the UK have endured a summer of abject misery due to the fact that our Home Office suffered a complete meltdown, with backlogs of up to six months leading to up to half a million people without the ability to travel, which enforced holiday cancelations which in many cases lead to considerable financial losses. Interestingly following that debacle, the automated telephone response at the UK Passport Center now includes an addendum strongly advising people not to book holidays until passports have been received; and indeed goes a stage further stating that should the eventuality of a lost holiday with accompanying lost money occur, they, the Passport Center, aren’t in any way responsible. This is akin to shutting the proverbial stable door after the horse has bolted.

Fast forward to today, and if you want to renew your passport while remaining in the motherland, a not too dissimilar picture to the UK situation emerges. I experienced this to my detriment when, emulating my 2009 sortie, I again rocked up to our Embassy with the purpose of renewing my passport, only to be blocked by Embassy’s equivalent of ‘face control’ who vehemently refused my entry on the grounds that I had to prove I had a prior appointment booked before having any chance of proceeding any further- hardly an auspicious start.

I repaired to my office to lick my wounds and set about securing an appointment which wasn’t quite as easy as I had imagined it would be either. Firstly, at the time I was applying, they were offering appointments between one and two weeks hence, and that was on condition that an online application had been completed with a quotable reference number. It was at this point I encountered a major stumbling block: the minimum time to get your new passport back is quoted as eight weeks, so if you add in the time taken to get an appointment plus any unforeseen circumstances occurring (more than likely), you are realistically looking at the best part of three months to receive your new passport as it has to be sent off somewhere for processing.

This is a totally ridiculous timescale as the majority of expats here are either senior managers in large companies or are running their own businesses. Whichever category you fall into, the fact remains that nearly all expats travel extensively either for business or pleasure, and to be without a passport for almost three months is quite simply unthinkable. I asked a few of my connections who have the ear of some extremely senior people at the Embassy staff, whether there was any possibility of getting this irksome process sped up, and the answer was a resounding ‘no.’ I therefore came to the inevitable conclusion that the only way for me to renew my passport in a shorter timescale was to fly to London and do the express seven day service, but then you’re reliant on the notoriously bad British postal service. The other alternative is to pay a bit extra (around fifty pounds) for the premium service on offer which promised to turn it around in four hours flat- a no-brainer if ever there was one.

One of my good friends rang me to say he had just been through the premium process and said, and I quote him ad verbatim: “Honestly, Simon, it’s a piece of cake, and I had to keep pinching myself as it was almost too easy, and I kept looking over my shoulder expecting to be called back because of a sudden problem uncovered, and there weren’t any!” However he, like ninety nine point nine percent of people, only possessed one UK passport, and as long as the paperwork presented is correct, you really shouldn’t encounter a problem. Your scribe, however, has a somewhat different situation, being the proud possessor of not one, but two UK passports which is a whole different ball game.

For either situation you need to complete an application form in black ink, which you can get from any post office and is called the renewal passport form. In truth this is disturbingly easy to fill in as it’s pretty much your basic personal details and official address etc, and it literally took around ten minutes to complete. I was reminded of my friend’s words about it being almost too easy and kept searching for any clauses that I should have filled in but hadn’t, but failed to find any. Next you need two photos, one of which should be countersigned by someone who can confirm this is a true likeness to yourself. I had actually had both photos countersigned but they insisted on one which wasn’t. Interestingly they also intimated that if your appearance hadn’t altered significantly in the last ten years, this wasn’t actually mandatory, but in my case it was a necessity as in my previous passport I was sporting a pair of glasses which today isn’t permitted.

All you need after that is the necessary fee which for the standard service is £72.50 plus £8.75 postage fee, or £128.00 for the premium service for a standard passport size or £137.00 for the 48 page jumbo passport size which is what most expats would choose due to their extensive travelling. However, in my case, where I am applying for renewing one of my two current passports, it is essential to bring with you an accompanying letter from a company (signed and stamped) clearly stating the reasons for requiring an additional passport. You also need to put the current second passport number on the application form and bring said passport with you to present with the other documents. Failure to do this will result in a refusal on the spot in the majority of cases. Indeed two friends of mine living and working here in Moscow, attempted to renew one of their passports like myself, and had to make more than one journey to the Passport Center in London, Victoria, and were subjected to a Spanish Inquisition before a senior officer intervened and relented.

Bearing all this in mind, I set off in good faith on my first ever Easyjet flight which surpassed all expectations (four thousand rubles return plus suitcase), and presented everything to the Passport Center for what I assumed (the mother of all evils) would be a fairly routine assignment- how wrong I was!

I had read various reports about ‘jobworths’ and a touch of megalomania they seem to acquire somewhere along the way, and I wasn’t to be disappointed. They deemed my support letter not to have sufficient explanations on it, and also my photos, which I had had done in a photo booth in a metro in downtown Moscow, didn’t have the right background on them and they asked if I had done them in a foreign country which of course I had. I then went to one of several booths they have in the office to rectify this situation, only to be told upon my return that they needed to be countersigned. I wasn’t able to phone my Moscow office and get a new letter faxed across with additional wording they had kindly suggested as they insisted on an original document with “wet ink.” At that point I realized the Gods were conspiring against me so I left empty handed muttering rather dark oaths to myself! The irony wasn’t lost on me either that at least eighty per cent of staff there were of an ethnic persuasion.

Two weeks later, equipped with a new letter and proper photos, I booked another Easyjet flight and set off in earnest to achieve what I had failed to do first time around, but at least this time I knew what to expect. The set-up in the Passport office is similar to the Russian visa center in the Barbican whereby you take your receipt from reception with a number on it and wait for it to be called out which in this case took under five minutes. They took a photocopy of my second passport, took the support letter with what appeared to be no more than a cursory glance at it this time, and sent me on my merry way with instructions to return four hours later; this after paying the fee which can be either cash or debit card. I spent a rather nervous four hours doing some mindless shopping, then got on the underground to Victoria. The center is less than five minutes walk from the mainline station, and I breezed in exuding all the confidence I could muster, and ‘heh presto,’ my new passport in all its glory was handed to me and I tried very hard not to look too relieved!

I can only hope the procedure won’t differ too much in another five years when I have to return to renew my existing passport. I have to say in all honestly that it’s been rather stressful, and unless you really have to have two passports, which I have for seventeen years now, it’s not an experience I would recommend to anyone. It’s much better to stick with just one as that process is far more straightforward.