Thursday, March 18, 2010

USA Passport Renewal

Updated! [3/26/10--see bottom of post]

Updated again! [4/6/10--see bottom of post]

The good news about passport renewals is that many people can do so through the mail. Get the right-sized photos (currently 2 inches by 2 inches for American passports), fill out the forms online, print everything up, and then head off to the post office.

But that's where it gets a little tricky.

I personally found that he information on the US Embassy of Japan's website was a little misleading and could be simplified in several ways. It seems rather obvious that whoever typed up the guide on this site has not tried to renew their passport through the mail in Japan before. Or at least not recently at any rate.

Here's what I learned about the process.

Even though the website linked to above states that an Expack 500 should be used, I was informed that you are not allowed to send passports using them. I don't know who's correct on this one, but the people at the post office are generally pretty knowledgeable about sending valuable items. Instead I was directed to stick a registered S.A.S.E. envelope inside of a larger registered envelope addressed to the US Embassy in Minato Ward, Tokyo. I assume that the US Embassy in Tokyo plays the middleman on this exchange, but I have yet to receive my new passport in the mail. I'll update this post when I have the new passport in my hands.

Another thing to pay close attention to is who the 'payee' for this transaction is. For those of us living in and around Tokyo, the US Embassy Tokyo is the payee. Their address, if I'm not mistaken, is: 
Unit 9800 Box 114 APO AP 96303-0114 USA.

The above information is necessary when filling out the required paperwork for an international payment and declaration. 

This is confusing because the payee appears to be residing in two countries at the same time. No explanation is given for this on the US Embassy of Japan website. The important thing, however, is that you don't actually send the parcel with your soon-to-expire passport to the payee's address as written above. Or at least that is how I was advised in an e-mail from someone at the embassy.

Instead, you must send your registered parcel to the following address:
American Embassy Passport Unit 1-10-5 Akasaka Minato-ku Tokyo 107-8420

I'm interested to see whether my passports (one new and one old) will be returned to me in the registered envelope I sent, or if the US Embassy will break the rules and use Expack 500. 

Hopefully what I've written here will help someone else who is having a hard time deciphering the information on the US Embassy of Japan website. It would be really helpful if there was a step-by-step guide--one for military personnel and a completely separate one for civilians. And both of those guides should be completely separated from information guiding current American residents who also wish to renew their passports. 

Unfortunately, in some cases, the information overlaps or is presented side-by-side. I guess the bottom line is that you need to read everything on that website carefully. 

Additional notes for American citizens (civilians) residing in Japan:

  • an international postal money order is called a kokusai yubin kawase in Japanese.
  • there is a 2,000 yen fee for this service.
  • the passport renewal fee (US$75) plus the optional quick service fee (US$60) works out to a little over 12,300 yen by today's exchange rate (91.39 yen to the dollar). That's just a bit under 15,000 yen all together. [updated 3/26/10]
  • make sure that your photos are taken on a white background.
  • don't staple your photos to the application form even though it clearly says to do so.
  • write your name very lightly on the back of the photos so that you don't put grooves that show through on the picture side.

Update 3/26/10: My passport application was returned yesterday. The problem was that my postal money order was rejected on account of being for too much money. "Expedited" service is apparently not available for non-US addresses.

This is annoying, to say the least, because this fact is not mentioned anywhere on the embassy's website. Furthermore, you are allowed to select the expedited service option while filling out your documents online, and the $60 fee is tacked onto your bill.

More annoying still is the fact that I had to repay the 2,000 yen processing fee for having a second postal money order issued, this time in the amount of $75 dollars.

The US Embassy in Japan would do well to indicate this important point on its passport renewal instructions page.

Oh, and the two photos I sent were returned to me not in their small envelope, but rather paper-clipped to my application. That left a nice crease down the left side. I'm now predicting that my application gets returned to me next week due to this new problem (I opted to use the same photos again as it costs 700 yen to get new ones).

Update 4/6/10: I just received my new passport in the mail. That was fast--basically a week and a half from the second time I shipped my passport. All told, including the misstep in the first update to this post, the process took less than three weeks. That's still much faster than the four to six commonly cited on the embassy website.

And I can confirm that NOT using an Expack 500 will still get your documents back to you in one piece. Just make sure that you register the S.A.S.E. envelope that you tuck in the original package with your soon-to-expire passport. Also, make sure that you put enough postage on the return envelope to carry the weight of both your old and new passports.

Oh, and they returned one of my two passport photos. Not sure why they needed two in the first place...

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