While it is often a better idea to not carry your passport around with you in the streets, always carry a copy on your mobile device.
You never know when you are going to need a copy of your passport when traveling. While it is oftentimes a better idea to keep your actual travel docks locked up in your room rather than carrying it around in the streets while abroad (there are marked exceptions to this) you should always have a copy of the information page and the visa/ entry stamp of the country you’re currently in on you at all times. You never know when you’re going to be accosted by a cop or soldier, need to show ID when checking into a hotel, buying train or bus tickets, need to run to your nearest embassy in the event of an emergency, or, as the case may be, lose your passport or find yourself unconscious or even dead.
Having a copy of your passport on you will make all of the above scenarios play out a little smoother.
In the old days we used to carry around photocopies of our passports in our hidden pockets, backpacks, and money belts just in case we needed to show identification or as an ass-saving/ body tagging mechanism in the event of disaster. While I still do this — it doesn’t hurt — I now also carry digital renditions of the ID page and visas on my mobile phone and tablet.
I simply create a folder on all of my mobile devices called “travel docs,” and I fill it with photos of my passport’s information page, signature page, and all of the visas and entry stamps that I collect. In this way, in the event that I am unable to access my actual passport in a situation that I need it, I can still have access to the information/ documentation that is contained within it. In point, my mobile phone and tablet pretty much go with me everywhere I go, and while I aim to have photocopies of my travel docs on me at all times, having digital copies on my mobile devices is actually a far more reliable method.
While digital copies of the information page of your passport and visas are by no means a substitute for the originals, they can have many useful purposes:
1. If your passport is lost or stolen. It is much easier to prove your identity and get a new passport if you have a copy of it to show to your consulate. While I don’t think you will be denied a new passport on the grounds that you don’t have a copy of the missing one, being able to produce some show of ID makes the process go a lot smoother and faster.
It is also smart to bring some extra copies of your passport photos. While passports are strictly issued in hard copy, your passport photos can be saved digitally and reproduced without restrictions. If you’re not comfortable carrying printouts of your face in your wallet or card holder, a soft copy or digital scan on your phone will do. Doing this will make it easier to prove your identity to authorities, especially when they perform cross-checks using the digital copy of your passport. Moreover, it comes handy for when you process your replacement passport.
2. In the event of disaster. You never know when you are going to be caught in some kind of disaster when abroad, and under these situations it is rather easy to lose your travel docs. When my friend Steve Mendoza was in the Sendai Earthquake in Japan, he lost his passport but he maintained possession of his phone. However, not everyone will be as lucky (or unlucky) as him. For good measure, make another digital copy of your passport and send it to a family member, friend, or someone you trust with legal matters. This way, you can have a reliable backup even if you end up losing your phone and your personal copies.
Also, carrying some way that you can be ID’ed at all times is essential if you want your embassy, and by extension your family back home, contacted if you end up hospitalized, unresponsive, incapacitated, or, otherwise, dead meat. As few foreigners carry their passports with them in the streets at all times, it is more than possible to have a major medical incident without any form of identification. So be sure to at least have a copy of your travel docs that can be found in an easily accessible location. When trying to discover someone’s identity from the contents of their phone, it is my impression that the first thing that is looked at after the contacts is the photos. Therefore, it pays to create a dedicated folder for all digital copies of your travel papers. Make sure that your travel docs folder can be easily accessed from the photo gallery of your mobile devices.
3. To show to authority figures during ID checks. In countries that have major political problems, a tumultuous or totalitarian government, or where it is demanded by law, you may want to carry your passport with you at all times. The reason for this is simple: you may be regularly asked to show identification to police or military personnel. This is often just standard operating procedure in countries like Iraq, and I can remember being surrounded by soldiers there who wanted nothing more than to check my passport. But in some other countries, like Russia, these random passport checks are often precursors to being robbed, scammed, or forced to pay a bribe. In this later scenario it is best to first show a digital or paper copy of your travel documents, and if they insist on the real thing find the nearest police station to get things straightened out. Sure, the police in the stations are probably just as corrupt as the ones in the streets, but at least you will know for sure that you are not dealing with impostors.
While a digital copy is by no means an adequate substitute for the passport itself, it can sometimes satisfy the demands of legit security officials doing routine ID checks. If the digital copy is not accepted in a country where you are not required by law to have official ID on you at all times, I would heighten your level of suspicion.
4. Random events. Every once in a while you’re going to have to show your passport in random situations. These are not always official scenarios, but if you don’t have your ID you could be in for some minor annoyances. I’m thinking of situations like buying train tickets, going on some tours, entering into some bars or clubs etc . . . While the genuine passport is always preferred, you can sometimes get through the road block with a copy or digital rendition.
Additional tip: keep an online backup of travel docs
As always, it is still prudent to have copies of all your travel documents stored in a secure virtual location, such as in your email or an online storage service. In this way, even if you lose everything (which is an ever present possibility), you can still at least access a copies of your travel docs.
However, keep in mind that online file storage comes with its own risks. The security of your information largely depends on the security of your servers. You should never downplay the possibility of hacking and other cyber-attacks. Therefore, you should only save your digital copies to a virtual location that you completely trust. Remember, you should protect your digital copies as mightily as you would protect your real passport.
Again, it is often better to not carry your passport with you in the streets, but be sure to always have a copy, as you never know when you’re going to need it.
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