How I Maxed Out my US Passport

October 29, 2016

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one man to dissolve the bands tying him to an overused and antiquated form of identification and accept a new one in order to roam the earth freely as only an American with an inflated sense of wanderlust can…

I’ve had exactly four passports in my life. The first one was a rush job in 1993. Though I was unaware of it at the time, I vaguely remember my mother driving down to Houston just a few days prior to our departure for London. Children’s passports in the US are valid for five years, so that sustained me until 1998. I honestly don’t remember how I got a replacement, but I must have had one for my Latin program in Italy in 2000. I didn’t put too many stamps in that one: a tourist visa from China, my working visa to Japan.

My most recently invalidated passport is once I had carried for eight years, from 2008 to just a few weeks ago. At the time, I was living in Kagoshima, Japan and had been incapacitated from a shattered wrist. Nevertheless, I saw the expiration date approaching and wanted to get all my paperwork in order before leaving for China and Thailand, so I took advantage of the then-available mail in renewal policy for American citizens living abroad and sent in everything to the consulate in Fukuoka.

This is the story of that passport, from beginning to end. Your standard adult US passport is valid for ten years. It used to be that you could simply add more pages (for a price) if you traveled so often it filled up the book, but this led to some passports bursting with page additions. Since January of this year, that is no longer possible: you run out of pages, you get a new book. Here’s what it takes to use one of these books to completion.

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Most of these are in the proper order, with my Japanese working visas transferred from my 1998 book to the new one; I had to go to the immigration office and fill out several official-looking forms to get this accomplished. Other stamps, however, are from future adventures: arrival and departure from working to rebuild homes in Haiti in 2010; exit stamp Peru in 2013; and a few days in Canada to see my flight attendant ex-girlfriend in 2015.

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These two pages are probably the only ones in chronological order. My 2008 Chinese tourist visa, for which I had to apply in Fukuoka, and entry and departure for Hong Kong and Macau the same summer. Hong Kong no longer stamps US passports.

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Here’s where everything is the most jumbled. A Japanese tourist visa on arrival for 2011 to volunteer with All Hands for tsunami clean up efforts in Ofunato. My final departure from Hong Kong in 2008, heading to Thailand to teach with Thai Mueang Volunteers for a month. Another crossing into Toronto, Canada to see my flight attendant friend in 2015. There are two entry and exit stamps for South Korea; I entered in January 2014 to work as a substitute teacher for a school in Gangneung, but left for two weeks to volunteer in the Philippines with All Hands following the earthquake and typhoon. I passed through Costa Rica in 2013 for a few days before heading to Peru; as you can see, they only allowed me ten days… kind of unusual. The stamp in the middle is my exit from Greece, having flown from Bulgaria on my way to Turkey. The one in the lower left is really difficult to make out, but it’s another one of my trips to Toronto… such is the power of a flight attendant girlfriend.

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Ahhh… memories. The Thai volunteer visa dominates the right side of these pages, which is why you often get countries requiring a minimum of 2-3 blank pages for entry. Entry and exit from Thailand in 2008. Entry to Bulgaria in 2015 prior to Greece, and entry and exit from Germany in 2012; I had arranged to meet a Couchsurfer friend in Heidelberg and then go by train to Dijon to see a friend from New Zealand. Although I flew out of Paris to catch my flight to Bangkok, I transited through Frankfurt, hence the exit stamp. The last one is after departing the UK by train, heading to Paris to meet my girlfriend and cash in some free nights at the Park Hyatt Paris Vendome.

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I’ve got a lot from different years on these two pages. My entry and departure from Japan in 2011 for my Mt. Fuji trip, as well as my entry and departure from Thailand in 2012; like my most recent trip, I was taking advantage of the cheap cost of living to pass the time until I could see my friends in Dubai. Entry and departure from the Philippines to volunteer with All Hands. On page 17, there’s a real throwback: my one-year New Zealand working holiday visa. I left during their winter to spend a summer in Texas, but came back in September. Entry into South Korea after my time volunteering Japan, and departure from South Korea heading to the Philippines.

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Another consistent set of pages, with my South Korean working visa from 2010, showing my entry and exit from Seoul and Busan for my two Japan trips: one for volunteering after the tsunami, the other to climb Mt. Fuji and do a writeup for a hot springs resort.

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I’m noticing a pattern in my travels now; it seems to revolve around South Korea and the Philippines. My 2014 Japanese visa shows entry and exit for three days, a simple run over to the Korean consulate in Fukuoka to process my working visa. I spent three weeks in the Philippines in 2015: one week with my girlfriend in Puerto Galera, the other two on my own in Boracay. I think those two weeks really showed me just how much I was burnt out on solo travel: if I couldn’t enjoy a beautiful island with endless white sand beaches, what could I enjoy? My entry stamp to Peru for 2013 includes the maximum allowed time: six months. Finally, there’s an entry stamp for Calgary in 2014; I used the time to visit Lake Victoria.

The top of page 21 features a transit stamp I would highly recommend everyone avoid, i.e. having a stopover in China. I would have missed my flight if it hadn’t have been late. Entry into the UK after a grueling – but cheap! – three-leg flight from Honolulu to Heathrow. Entry into Canada to see – you guessed it – the flight attendant. I think 2015 was probably my biggest travel year with all the time in the air just visiting her.

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Although this looks identical to my 2011 South Korean work visa, there are key differences: I had to do a visa run to Japan to apply for this one instead of doing it at my leisure in the US, and it was only valid for two months due to the nature of the work – substitute teacher. Two exit stamps and one entry for Bulgaria, as I flew into Sofia at the beginning of my journey to Athens and Turkey, and flew out after having taken a bus from Istanbul to Sofia. Roughest travel day I’ve ever had: checked out of the hotel at 1 PM, walked around town for a bit, caught a midnight bus to Sofia, barely slept, arrived and waited in the airport for a few hours, flew to Warsaw, flew from Warsaw to Chicago, stayed overnight, then finally returned to Seattle.

The last stamp in the upper right corner is for my entry to Canada in December 2014. Seeing my then-girlfriend for the first time since we met in San Francisco in October. A welcome diversion from family holiday drama.

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Short and sweet. Entry to Greece in 2015, entry and exit from Turkey on the same trip. One blank page.

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Second blank page. As you can see, I wouldn’t have been able to use this passport for my most recent RTW trip: the Cambodia tourist visa takes up a full page, and Bali requires two blank facing pages for entry. The United Arab Emirates took up the last page with their 30-day tourist visa, and for some reason Bulgaria decided to stamp my final entry for my 2015 trip at the bottom.

This is kind of travel it takes to max out a US passport. I did it in eight years. Maybe you can do it in two?

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