Why did I have to fly from London to Belfast to get a new UK passport?

Discovering you urgently need a new passport during a lengthy Passport Office strike is bad news. Normally you can apply for a fast-track passport that can be collected within a week, or use the online premium service that can turn one around for you in a couple of days, but not when a quarter of Passport Office staff stop working for five weeks.

For me, the consequence of this was discovering I would have to take a flight from London, where I live, to Belfast to pick up my new passport. There were no appointments in England. And even though I was paying top dollar (£193.50 compared with £155 for fast-track or £82.50 for the normal service), the soonest in-person appointment I could get was 19 days later, on Tuesday 25 April. With work trips to Dubai and then Nice in the next couple of weeks, getting my new passport was a matter of urgency.

This stressful experience began with an even more stressful one on 4 April, when I turned up at Gatwick airport with my four-year-old daughter to fly to France to visit her grandparents. We had got all the way to the gate when a member of easyJet staff scanned my passport and the screen flashed up an “amber” alert. “You can’t fly – your passport has expired,” she told me. My heart sank, my daughter started crying. But I was also confused: the expiry date was clearly November 2023, and even with the EU requirement to have at least three months of validity on your passport, I thought I was fine. But no.

City of Nice viewed from high up in 2018
Jenny Southan had a work trip to Nice coming up. Photograph: StockByM/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The mistake came from not checking the issue date. Since Brexit, to travel to the EU, British passports can be no older than 10 years, so if you have extra months added on from a passport issued before 2019 (I had nine extra months), these cease to be counted. Travel to other countries such as the US, where I had travelled to only days before, is fine.

My passport was issued in February 2013, which meant it “expired” in February 2023.

Resigned to having to abandon our Easter holiday, we were escorted back through the airport. Two and a half hours later, at 9.30pm, we got our suitcase back.

I used this time to speak to my family and warn my brother, who was due to visit our parents with his family in May. He rushed off to check his passport – it would be out of date, too. He couldn’t afford to pay for the expedited service, so he filled in his application the same night and posted it off the next day. The general advice was that it would take up to 10 weeks to get a new one during the strikes, so it looked as if his holiday might be scuppered, too.

It took me two days of checking and rechecking the Gov.uk website to get my online premium appointment, so it was a race against the clock to see who would get theirs first. Not only did I pay almost £111 extra for the “speediest” service but another £250 on flights to Belfast, £100 for a hotel, and about £50 on food and drink during the trip. (About £500 more than my brother.)

And you know who got their passport first? He did. Four days earlier, on 21 April.

I successfully picked up my passport from the Passport Office in Belfast at 9am – the place was empty. When I got home, I noticed my daughter’s passport would expire in September 2023, so I submitted an application for her, too (£53.50), but this time I did it by post.

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