The power of the British passport has fallen – and it’s causing chaos

From dark blue to burgundy and back to blue again, the power of a British passport changed

From dark blue to burgundy and back to blue again, the power of a British passport changed

“Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires in Her Majesty’s name all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance…” These emotive words – or slight variations of them – have appeared on British passports since the first dark blue version was introduced in 1921.

With overtones of colonial power in the days of Rule Britannia, they were written perhaps more in hope than expectation. I don’t remember Brezhnev’s border guards, Ronald Reagan’s immigration officials or even the gendarmes in Calais being cowed into submission when I shoved my passport under their noses. Nevertheless, for generations of British travellers, these words have inspired confidence, anchored the belief that we had some standing in the world and that if things were to go wrong, our diplomacy might be enough to sort it all out.

It wasn’t just the words that mattered. For many, the dark blue cover was a symbol of our national identity, and this was fundamentally undermined in 1988 when the color was changed to burgundy red to match the color of the other EU member states. For practical purposes, however, the new British passport went down well. In 2010, it was ranked as the most powerful in the world. According to the Henley Passport Index, we could visit more destinations without a prior visa than any other nationality.

So has there been a terrible irony in the return of the dark blue version? From a traveler’s point of view, it begins to look like a rather diminished and problematic document. This year it plunged to number 13 in the Henley Passport Index, below countries such as Singapore, Spain and Luxembourg. This has not gone unnoticed among many British citizens. In the first four years after the 2016 referendum, around 360,000 of us applied for EU passports – and that’s just in the nine countries that revealed the data.

Much of the problem comes down to the new restrictions on our rights to visit our neighbors in Europe, but other issues have dogged the Blue Book ever since it was first reissued in 2020. First, it has been a struggle to get in a. The extraordinarily long delays in issuing new passports have received wide news coverage for more than a year now.

However, despite a major recruitment campaign at the Passport Office, there has been no improvement in the time you have to allow processing of an application. The latest update on the Passport Office website, which itself is three months old, warns that we should still expect to wait up to 10 weeks. This compared to what used to be a two to three week processing time for the old burgundy EU version.

The situation has not been helped by the extra demand caused by a crackdown on UK passport holders trying to visit the EU since January 2021. For the first year and a half of Brexit meant a quirk in the way our passports were issued. that some older versions did not meet EU rules (rules that apply to visitors from all non-member countries, not just the UK).

The British government had for several years issued passports with a few extra months added to the total 10-year validity. But the EU has a 10-year limit and also requires validity for at least three months after the date of visit. So some British travelers were caught out – denied boarding by airlines and had their holidays ruined as a result.

In theory, this anomaly was resolved in April when the European Commission said member states could take a more relaxed approach. However, the decision can still be interpreted differently by different member states. And if your passport is more than nine years old, you’ll want to consider applying for a new one, or at least double-check the latest situation.

But the biggest problem at the moment is that we can no longer use our passports in the e-reading machines when we cross the border into the EU. It is this, combined with a lack of border officials at Dover (where the French controls are carried out), which appears to have caused the huge declines at the port recently.

Human operators are needed because – unless we apply for a visa – we can now only visit for a total of three months out of every six. As the machines cannot yet record individual entry and exit, the only way to monitor the post-Brexit restriction is via an old-fashioned ink stamp in your passport. Reports suggest that this takes about 50 percent longer than using the machines (about 90 seconds versus 58).

It is not only in Dover that there have been delays. This year I have seen long queues for UK passport holders on arrival at airports including Rome and Zurich, and also for departures at the Eurostar terminal in St Pancras. Admittedly, some airports manage the situation relatively well. I had a reasonable experience at immigration in Athens the other day, for example.

And earlier this year in Bergamo they solved the problem by stationing an official just after the machine gates – it seemed that because the passport was already electronically checked, all you had to do was insert a stamp. The same tactic is being used to reduce delays for Britons arriving at major airports in Spain and Portugal.

But, as Dover has shown, when things go wrong, they have the potential to go very wrong. And it doesn’t look like the situation will generally improve until at least June 2023. That’s the deadline (recently pushed back from this September) for the introduction of a new EU “EES” IT system. This will enable electronic readers to capture your name, biometric data (fingerprints and facial images) plus date and place of entry and exit. So there will be no need for a stamp in your passport anymore.

However, whether that actually speeds things up at Dover and other borders, or causes other problems, remains to be seen. As we know, new technology does not always work quite as efficiently and seamlessly as promised. And even if it does, while these electronic readers may work OK at airports, there are concerns about what will happen at ferry ports. If passengers have to get out of their vehicles to use the machines, it will only increase delays.

And there is a final irony. When you apply for your new document, it’s kind of not British at all. Unlike our old burgundy EU passports, which were produced in Gateshead by British company De La Rue, the new version is made under a new contract with a French firm, Thales (which is part-owned by the French government), and they are printed in Tczew, Poland.

Which passport cover do you prefer, red or blue? Does it matter to you? Join the conversation in the comments section below

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