Phil Buckley

Phil Buckley

Digital Transformation Manager

Part of Digital Diplomacy

26th April 2016 London, UK

Emergency travel documents online: getting people home the complicated way

This is actually a bit harder than I realised

Last year I wrote a number of ‘Photo casebooks’ talking about what an emergency travel document is, and our plans to digitise the application process for an emergency travel document.

The project is still invitation only, but has now been rolled out worldwide; and at least until our legalisation online project goes live, it is unambiguously the best website the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has ever released1. In a series of slightly longer blogs, I’d like to tell you a little more about several aspects of the project: the challenges we have faced, the technical details, our successes, and in at least one case our failures too.

A map showing where people have been applying online for emergency travel documents worldwide, 30 March 2016. You can now (by invitation) apply online in almost every UK consulate.
A map showing where people have been applying online for emergency travel documents worldwide, 30 March 2016. You can now (by invitation) apply online in almost every UK consulate.

To start with I’d like to write a little about the levels of complexity we have had to deal with. We decided to do the project largely on the belief that we could offer our customers a much better experience, and that the current process was an inefficient use of our staff’s time. Our service owner Rebecca did warn us that issuing a document which allows someone entry into the UK was a complex old business – but armed with our trusty optimism, and the knowledge that the Passport Office were working on digitising the application process for a full passport, we sailed on.

A surprising amount of use cases

One of the first problems we had was that although an emergency travel document has many of its features set very strictly by international agreement, there are at least 6 valid reasons why you might need a document – these include losing your passport or having it stolen but there are more. These different cases need slightly different information to be collected and checked.

Combining these cases with what we are able to offer locally means that we had to cope with a phenomenal number of cases:

  • There are 196 consulates, embassies, and high commissions around the world who can issue an emergency travel document
  • Most consulates will accept online payments for your emergency travel document but others can’t for one reason or another
  • Most consulates offer online appointment booking but a few don’t
  • Some consulates were on a new case management system, while others were on the old. Consulates moved from the old to the new during the course of the project.

To begin with then, the website had to deal with 9 408 (6 x 196 x 2 x 2 x 2) different but perfectly valid customer journeys.

This is actually a bit harder than I realised

Which countries would you like to go through?

Additionally, an emergency travel document is not like a full passport: it is only valid for a single journey which is printed in the document itself, reading for example ‘Issued for a single journey to United Kingdom arriving on 17-04-20162. Many of our users will simply get a direct flight home, but around half go via another country which must itself be written on the document. In fact, you can transit up to 5 countries using your Emergency travel document as long as they are all specified in it.

In order to collect this information, we needed to make a page which was usable both for people simply flying from Spain to the UK, and those who were on a cruise ship travelling home via 5 separate countries.

For a good deal of the application process we were able to look at the good work done by the Passport Office on their transaction to cancel a lost and stolen passport: we knew they had heavily user-tested their work so we had an excellent chance of it being usable for our users too. The Journey Details page was the most complex in our application however, and it had no precedents at all across government – we had to work it out ourselves.

On the left, a simple journey entered into our journey details page. On the right, the same page with a much more complex journey entered, possibly by a passenger on a cruise.
On the left, a simple journey entered into our journey details page. On the right, the same page with a much more complex journey entered, possibly by a passenger on a cruise.

What you see above is about draft 70: we went through several rounds of user testing just on this screen. As we tweaked and tweaked it, the feedback inched from people failing to complete the page entirely, to ‘this page is very confusing!’, to the above version where eventually we had a run of people who simply wrote ‘no problems’.

The mathematics spiral out of control a little here. Not including the UK, there are 228 different countries and territories in the world, and you could theoretically lose your passport in any of them. Therefore, this page needed to cope not only with people planning to travel from 1 of 228 places to the UK; it also needed to deal with people leaving 1 of those 228 places, transiting 1 of the 227 remaining, making a further transit of 1 of the 226 remaining – I could go on. All in all, this page copes with over 10 trillion different possible journeys. And that’s before we even get to the next question:

Do you need to return to where you are now?

Yes – many people need to travel and then return to where they are on the same emergency document. They are allowed 5 transit countries on the return journey too.

Lost your passport in Budapest? Driving to Liverpool via Slovakia, Czech Rep, Germany, Belgium and France? And by which route would you like to return?
Lost your passport in Budapest? Driving to Liverpool via Slovakia, Czech Rep, Germany, Belgium and France? And by which route would you like to return?

I hope that gives some flavour of the challenges we faced but also how interesting the project was; I’ll write again shortly on how we dealt with the different local requirements countries have and how we try and keep up to date with countries changing their laws.



1. There isn’t much competition.


2. If you change your plans after you have got your document – too bad my friend, you have to pay for another one.

23 comments on “Emergency travel documents online: getting people home the complicated way

  1. Hi Tracey and Megan –

    Apologies, this blog is run by the digital team and we can’t answer these questions.

    Tracey, if you haven’t already done so, can I suggest you contact the Embassy or Consulate nearest to where your daughter is and they will be able to help? We have several offices around the USA, their details are at https://www.gov.uk/government/world/usa.

    Megan – in your case, your best bet is to speak to the Consulate which issued your Emergency travel document who will be able to advise.

    Sorry I can’t help more, best wishes both –

    Phil

  2. Hello

    I have a emergency passport and my final travel date will be May 18. Can I fly anytime before this and land in my designated country with my approved visa or do I have to fly on may 18 specifically?

    If I fly on the May 18 I will arrive to my designated country on a different date anyways due to time difference?

    Thank you

  3. I need help.. my 15year old daughter is in the USA and has had her passport stolen and I have no idea how to get her home.. when she’s a minor stuck in another country.. and her visa has ran out. What do I do

  4. Hi ThuongDaLat-

    It depends on what you mean:

    British citizens in Southeast Asia are able to use our system now;
    Other countries may have their own digital system – though I don’t know of any who do, either in SE Asia or elsewhere: I think the UK is the first.

    Very happy to share our experience with anyone who wants to give it a go though!

    Best wishes-

    Phil

  5. Do you think it will expand the idea in Southeast Asia? I find this idea great but it will be difficult to implement in less developed countries like Southeast Asia.

  6. Hi Tim-

    I’m afraid this blog is run by the Emergency travel documents web team – we do our best but I don’t think we can answer your question. You might do best to contact Eurostar directly?

    Best wishes and sorry I can’t do more to help –

    Phil

  7. great insight. I am seeking advice please. I am British citizen with a biometric passport. I have discovered that my passport went though the washing machine and the photo is now 75% washed out.

    I have a colour image of the bio page from this passport before the washing incident. I also have a fully filled in application form for replacement passport.

    I am traveling to Belgium tomorrow and return on Eurostar. Will the documents above plus valid EU driving licence be acceptable? If not, what will?

    Thanks

  8. John R – thanks very much for your feedback, that’s great to hear!

    Tony –

    If you are in the UK you can’t get an Emergency travel document – it’s better in any case to get a full validity Passport which will last for 10 years. Try from https://www.gov.uk/apply-renew-passport?

    Best wishes –

    Phil

  9. hi sir
    how long will take for emergency travel doucment to issued? I’m resident in uk but fornght passport expired 6 years ago ?

  10. As a recent user of this service I am happy to confirm that it really is good and took much stress out of a horrible situation – I had my passport stolen on New Year’s Eve/early 1 Jan in Istanbul. Not mugged or anything like that – just pick pocketed in crowds in Taksim Square. Alas had to wait until 3 January to see consulate as they were taking the 2nd as holiday in accordance with UK bank hols, but the process was efficient.

    I rang the emergency number, they directed me to the site, I filled in the form and received an email the next day inviting me to interview.

    The big worry had been trying to deal with local police: they would not let me report the loss of my passport without having a document from the British Consulate proving I was who I said I was!

    In fact in filling the form in I had to give a random police case reference number in order to satisfy the system rule and then explain in a text field what happened.

    Incidentally I had no other photo ID – I don’t drive – and don’t have a photocopy of the stolen passport or a copy in Dropbox – and not even a note of the number (this is the first time ever in many years of travelling I didn’t make a copy etc – and look what happened!). But because I was able to tell the consulate – who asked in their email for any further info – things like my national insurance number in addition to when the passport had been issued and where, when I entered Turkey, travel itinerary etc., they managed to retrieve a copy of the stolen passport and everything was plain sailing from there on.

    Re police report, I explained the situation and the consulate staff said ‘Sometimes the police here are not very helpful’. It was a relief that I did not need to go back to the police to get the ETD – the consulate said they would issue it that afternoon without a report.

    If it had not been for the incident taking place on a Sunday, and the following day being treated as a bank holiday, I would have received the EDT within 36 hours. Very impressive.

    Thank you!

  11. Hi Confused, thanks for your comment.

    This blog is maintained by the web team rather than by consular staff – however, with thanks to them, the best thing to do here is probably to ring the consulate and make sure that they have availability?

    The telephone number will depend on whereabouts in Spain you are (we have several consulates in Spain), but if you start at https://www.gov.uk/government/world/organisations/british-embassy-madrid, there is a list of consulates near the top of the page – click on the nearest one to you, and their office number will be at the bottom of the page.

    They can normally issue an ETD within 24 hours though it depends on your exact circumstances.

    Thanks and best wishes –

    Phil

  12. Hi, I’m trying to find any info on how long it takes to get an appointment from the day of application. The website won’t show me appointment times until I pay. I’m due to travel in four days time from Spain to the UK for a wedding, but my passport application got delayed. I don’t want to waste the money & then find out that there are no appointments before I am due to travel. I can’t find any details to contact them either. The regular helpline didn’t have any information on ETDs.

  13. That’s great, thanks. Going on a very long trip soon, hoping I won’t need your service but just planning for the worst! Thanks

  14. Hi Phil

    I see that you can use the ETD through 5 countries. If I were on a big trip of say nine countries and I lost my passport in country number one, got an ETD to country number 6, could I then get a second ETD to complete the last three countries and head home?

    Also, is there a time limit on how long the document lasts, for example if I were on said trip and it were to take six months and I had lost it in month one, would it be valid for my trip home five months later?

    Thanks

    1. Hi Dan –

      Thanks for your comment and for these tricky questions! With thanks to my FCO policy colleagues for their help here:

      For your first question, an ETD is designed to allow someone to return to the UK or their country of residence – so our normal advice is that 5 countries is sufficient to get home. If you were on a longer trip, our advice would be to alter your plans or apply for a new passport and wait for it to be issued. If this is really impossible it would probably be best thing to give us a ring, and one of the team will try and work out what’s best.

      For the second question, the maximum duration allowed is 9 months. This is because some countries require 6 months validity on entry.

      I hope that is of use, best wishes-

      Phil

  15. as someone who recently had to use this service, i can confirm it is one of the best user interfaces i have had an interaction with. The whole end to end process works (including the people part during the appointment itself) which is such a relief for someone who is completely stressed out as a consequence of losing their passport in the first place! Thanks for this – makes a big difference.

  16. Hi Andrew –

    Thanks for taking the time to comment! Yes- this is a real challenge though also probably the most interesting part of the project.

    The next blog will be on how we have attempted to deal with it, but always keen to know when things are and aren’t working – I’ll contact you to make sure we are getting it right for posts in America.

    Best wishes –

    Phil

  17. Hi Phil,

    The “different local requirements countries have and how we try and keep up to date with countries changing their laws” will be a challenge and will probably need quite a lot of liaison with posts.

    Just as an example; a lot of our customers need to use an ETD to transit through the USA, who (as you know) require a full non-immigrant visa (not an ESTA) which takes at least 3-4 days to obtain and (oddly) while there’s no minimum validity requirement to use either a full validity passport or an ETD for this, the USA visa application online questionnaire asks for 6 months validity (which we provide, as a precaution).

    Not easy to include this information in a standardised process without complicating the issue massively. I’m sure there are similar issues at every post. I guess it’s just a matter assessing at which point to tell the customer – “Your issue is complicated – you need to discuss it direct with the Consulate”. The trick is to do this soon enough, so that they leave themselves time. If we don’t provide this information they tend to book an appointment they day before they are due to travel, and come unstuck!

    We’re grateful that this piece of work is being done and don’t hesitate to ask us for info on local ‘glitches’ and potential pitfalls. Good luck!

  18. Hi Ed –

    Yes, applicants still have to attend an appointment in person and a Consular officer checks their application. However, applicants can now book their appointment online as part of the process, so it should be easier to organise doing this alongside any other things they need to do (getting a police report, for example). There’s another blog coming up in a fortnight or so on how we handle the data if you are interested.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment – best wishes-

    Phil

  19. Excellent work, provided someone sees the customer in person and is satisfied that there is no impersonation of a British Citizen who has provided his passport details to aid unlawful entry. Is the UK Border Force content?

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