When people used to tweet to Sushma Swaraj desperately seeking support after having lost their Indian passports while traveling abroad, I often wondered how can one lose such an important document in an alien environment. I thought people were being careless. Thankfully, I never tweeted or expressed this thought publicly, else today, I would have been screenshotting and trolling myself.
I too found myself with my passport lost, actually stolen, while traveling in Europe last week. And it happened at a time when Sushma Swaraj was not only no more the foreign minister of India but tragically no more with us at all. She had passed away barely a couple of weeks before I undertook this cursed trip. But before I come to my story, a heartfelt tribute and ‘Om Shanti’ for Sushma ji, who convinced a common citizen that the government was there to help you when you’re stuck abroad.
I am writing not only to share my story, but maybe next time if you, unfortunately, find yourself in such a situation, you would know what to do. If you are not too excited about the whole story, but just want to know what all should be done, skip towards the end of the post.
The not-so-safe Europe
Europe is obviously rich and developed and thanks to history textbooks etc. we also feel that it’s the fount of modern civilization where the great ideals of modern democracy were born. Europe has “higher standards” than us basically, we feel. So their criminals should also have higher standards you know! There should only be drug mafia, bank fraudsters dealing with millions of dollars, or the mass shooting terrorists, not petty pickpockets or shady people lifting your bags.
This might sound silly but somewhere in our subconscious such a thought might exist, especially if you’re going to Europe for the first time and have not researched (scanned forums like TripAdvisor etc. about such unpleasant experiences) well. In my case, my earlier visits to Switzerland and UK were smooth without any issues so I didn’t really think about petty crimes happening with tourists, and I just told you how I felt about people who lost passports and tweeted to Sushma ji. Basically, I was ill-prepared for this tour.
I was traveling with my wife, her parents, and our daughter (who turns two today) with an itinerary that covered various cities like Berlin, Munich, Prague, Salzburg, Innsbruck, Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava and some other small stops. We had applied for Schengen visa which was issued by Hungary, because Budapest was the city where we were staying for the longest and from where was our flight back to India. Half of the trip was part of a group tour and half (primarily the stay at Budapest and travel from there to different cities) was private.
For those who might not know, Schengen visa is issued by signatory countries of the Schengen Agreement that have virtually abolished border controls, allowing you to freely move from one country to another without major passport checks (except at the airports where your passports will be checked, but you can take flight from one country to another on a single Schengen visa). Essentially, one visa works for travel to multiple European countries within a specified time period i.e. the duration of the visa. Schengen visa comes in shape of a rectangular sticker with your photograph, and is pasted in one of the inner pages of your passport.
Our passports, with the stamped visas, were stolen from a hotel lobby in Prague while we were part of the group tour. The thief in all probability took advantage of the fact that many people were waiting in the lobby for the tour bus to arrive after having checked-out from the hotel. Hotel Panorama, it was a decent hotel, but horrible experience.
In our earlier foreign trips, I used to keep passports in my laptop bag and carry the bag around as losing the laptop was a big nightmare for me (see, losing the passport was still not on my mind!). But this time around, my wife was carrying our passports – her, mine, and our kid’s – in her handbag, which also had baby food and other stuff making the handbag appear full of items, probably which is why the thief zeroed upon it.
How are we so sure that it was stolen? Because there was a witness who said he saw a lady picking up a mustard-yellow bag and scamper out of the hotel, and later the hotel manager confirmed that CCTV footage indeed showed this unidentified lady, who along with her accomplice was in a shop in the same hotel earlier, flicking the handbag and leaving the premises quickly.
It all happened within a couple of minutes when I had to stroll out of the hotel with our daughter as she was getting cranky and my wife had to go on first floor’s restaurant to fetch something, leaving almost eight small and big bags under the watch of my in-laws who perhaps found it too overwhelming to keep an eye everything. Or maybe this European thief had “high standards” to do this job rather quickly and smartly.
While the hotel had CCTV, it had no security guards who could keep an eye on such thieves and the hotel manager coolly told us that hotel lobby was a “public place” so they were not responsible for the theft. Some fellow Indian travelers looked around the hotel thinking that maybe the thief would have thrown the handbag with passports after taking away any valuable that they could find, but the thief had not done that.
The group tour manager, a Spanish guy, told us that he witnesses such things daily and tried to calm us. While that may make us believe that we were not especially careless, it did not help as we were not prepared for this eventuality. We knew what to do when a handbag with baby food, mobile phone, and bank cards is stolen – get the bank and SIM cards blocked, try to remotely erase data on your phone, and buy new stuff – but we did not know what to do when your passports were stolen abroad.
To report to the police or not?
With the hotel management refusing to either take any responsibility or to help us further in recovering our stolen goods, we told them that we will file a police complaint locally. This was an instinctive decision, but in retrospect we realize that this was a very good decision, though as you’d see, we did not immediately implement it.
When we apprised them of our decision, the hotel guys told us that there was virtually no chance that police will be able to recover our goods. I don’t know why they said so. Maybe because the thief was too smart and knew about the hotel CCTV cameras and her face was not captured? We can only guess because when we demanded to see the CCTV footage, the hotel staff said that local laws stopped them from showing the CCTV footage to anyone other than the police. Or maybe Prague police is too hopeless? I don’t know, but hotel guys were virtually discouraging us from filing a police report, but we insisted.
Another party discouraging us from filing a police complaint on the spot was the tour manager. He said that this will create various problems, that we will be stuck in Prague for days, and we will get deported from Prague, thus our entire trip will be ruined. Since my in-laws’ passports were not stolen as they kept it in different bag, it also meant that our families will be separated in the middle of this trip with our trip coming to an abrupt end. We were suddenly not sure if we should file a police complaint. Leaving old parents behind as well as getting deported was not an exciting idea.
The tour bus was already held up for almost half an hour and the tour manager warned us that the bus will leave without us in a few minutes, for everyone’s day can’t be ruined due to us. He surely was right so far as this part was concerned. However, we were fortunate that no one on the bus was refusing to suffer due to our misfortune. Most of the group tour members were Indians, and maybe they empathized with us. As recounted earlier, some even scanned the vicinity of the hotel to find the stolen handbag possibly thrown away by the thief. Three cheers to hyper-nationalism!
After a few minutes, a policeman arrived in a car. He didn’t understand English so we had to depend upon the hotel guys to explain the situation to him. We asked the hotel guys to tell the policeman that we just want to file a report, provide our contact details – my phone was not stolen and it was on international roaming so they could contact me anytime – and leave with the rest of the group for the moment. It was also an indirect way to check if the tour manager was right when he had warned that we would not be allowed to leave Prague if we told the police about our missing passports.
I again have no idea what the hotel guys told the policeman, but even the policeman didn’t appear too excited about filing a report or holding us back in Prague. We were told that it will take over half an hour, maybe up to an hour, to finish the process of filing police complaint as the policeman will have to drive back to his police station, complete formalities, get our signatures etc.
Even after another ten minutes of bus being held up, no fellow traveler was getting restless, but we were. The tour manager kept assuring us that since there were no passport checks anywhere within the Schengen area and since all hotel check-ins would be group check-ins, our vacation will not be ruined if we listen to him and just board the bus.
It was practically correct but technically wrong suggestion (police report should be filed), but we decided to listen to him as we too were getting frustrated with a policeman who couldn’t understand English and a hotel staff that who didn’t appear too helpful. We boarded the bus and continued with the trip for the day after giving details of the issue and my contact number to the hotel as well as to the policeman – both of whom would possibly have forgotten about it as soon as the bus left.
While on the bus, with my phone being the life saver, I called up or sent emails to all it mattered. To people in tourism industry, to people in the Government of India, to the Embassy of Hungary back in India, and to Indian embassies in Vienna and Budapest. All of them advised to file a police report and then contact an Indian embassy in the nearest European capital. All of them (except the Embassy of Hungary of course) also said that theft in Europe was very common and we should have been alert.
So the tour manager was right when he said he witnesses such things daily. He was also right as no one bothered to check passports as we arrived in Austria from Czechia. The Austrian hotel just handed over the room keys after being run over by a group check-in. We could indeed have completed our group tour without any hassles, however, we had decided to file a police report after having talked to various people during the day. Since we had arrived at Innsbruck in Austria late in the night, we decided to go to a police station the following morning.
The visit to the police station
We boarded the tourist bus the following morning, but decided to skip the first event that was on itinerary for Innsbruck. Instead we searched for ‘police station’ in Google Maps to locate the nearest police station (I am yet to see weird Google ads as I had searched for this term quite a lot of times while on the bus to Innsbruck to figure out the closet police station on our way). Fortunately, we found a police station just in front of the parking place where the tour bus was parked. We walked into it.
The policeman at the entry of the station asked us what was the matter and I told him we had lost our Indian passports. He asked us if we have any other identity proof, and well, I showed him Aadhaar cards that were lying in my laptop bag. It was weird. A foreign police guy being shown Aadhaar card, but we were happy to just produce whatever we can because at least he was able to speak good English and understand what we wanted to say.
He took our Aadhaar cards and went inside the station while we waited outside the small entry gate meant for visitors. He appears to have shown them to fellow policemen and discussed the matter. After some time, he came outside saying all was good, that we can continue our trip and later we should contact “airport police”.
I think maybe the Government of India emblem on the Aadhaar cards confused him and his colleagues and they thought it was as good as any passport? Further what the hell was this “airport police”? Wait, will they deport us back? Was the tour manager right? We got even more worried when he said all was good, because clearly it was not.
I knew that this needs to be communicated better, so I explained to him that this (Aadhaar) is just an identity document and it doesn’t have the visa details, and that Indian embassy had asked me to get a police report so that they can provide us with “temporary passport” allowing us to go back to India. I also explained to him that the reason we want to inform the local police is to get a written document, so that while we are traveling to any European capital to visit an Indian embassy, we can produce a document explaining why we are not carrying our passports if any law enforcing authority asks us about it.
He seemed to understand, went back inside again to talk to his colleagues or seniors, and then came back saying “come inside, it’s complicated.”
We were a bit scared. What “complicated”? Don’t tell me they will lock us suspecting us to be illegal immigrants! All those episodes of “Banged Up Abroad” started flashing before our eyes, but we walked inside the police station while my wife’s parents waited outside with our kid. We took with us passports of my wife’s parents to show them that we were genuine tourists and we were not moving around without passports with some bad intent. We fortunately had also kept safe the boarding passes of our incoming flight to prove that we came in the Schengen area through legal means not too long ago.
As it happens, the policeman meant “it is complicated” not about our problem, but about his own experience. Apparently, this particular police station in Innsbruck never had to deal with such a complaint so they were not sure how to handle it. They were trying to locate our visas and obviously failing as they had entered the Aadhaar card number. On my mobile, I had pictures of the passports handy, so I could provide him the passport numbers of the stolen passports.
The police officer could retrieve our visa details after entering the passport numbers in his system. He could match the information on the visa, including our pictures, with information we had provided (including on Aadhaar card) and he seemed satisfied and relieved more about a new job well done than us being genuine tourists and not illegal immigrants.
Not once he asked questions like if passports were lost in Prague (Czechia), why were we reporting it in Innsbruck (Austria) or other queries about a day delay in filing the police report, which he would have been well within his rights to ask. Maybe for a change, luck was on our side.
We were relieved. We asked him if we could have a copy of the visa he could retrieve as we had not taken pictures of our visas, to which he responded in negative, explaining that those papers were just supposed to be with the police and not with the civilians. However, he was kind enough to add a new row in his police report (he printed the entire report again) where he mentioned the dates till when our original visas were valid. The police report was in German (as spoken and written in Austria) so he highlighted the part in the report where visa duration was mentioned so that we can point out to any authorities if asked.
That was a big relief and a really helpful step. I had emailed the Embassy of Hungary back in India and asked them to provide a copy of the visa, but they said it was not possible. Our tour operator didn’t have copies of our visas either. Ideally, we should have taken a picture of the visa too just like I had taken pictures of our passports’ front and back pages, but we hadn’t, so this additional information mentioned by the Innsbruck policeman (Inspector Alexander, I remember his name) was really helpful.
Returning to India
With a police report explaining the absence of passports and documenting validity of visa that went way beyond our date of return to India, we breathed a sigh of relief and decided to continue the rest of trip as planned.
But that was not all. Getting in touch with the Indian embassy to obtain the required documents to take flight back to India was something that needed to be done too. We decided to get in touch with embassy in Budapest since our return flight was from Budapest.
The experience at the embassy was smooth too. We were asked to fill up some forms, provide copy of the police report, provide copies of the lost passports, some passport sized photographs (was too costly to get them clicked in Hungary), and a processing fee in local currency (Hungarian Forint).
After a day, we got the following documents that are called Emergency Certificates (image below):
As you can see, they are almost three times the width of a normal passport with the height being bigger too. Actually, they are even bigger, what you can see in the image above is the Emergency Certificate folded in the middle! It’s like more than 2 feet in width and around 7-8 inches in height. Basically, they are 6 pages printed side by side, which makes it a bit awkward to carry and present at airports or immigration counters.
These 6 pages contain details of the passport lost, validity period of the certificate (three months typically), signatures of embassy authorities certifying that the certificate holder is a citizen of India traveling with no wrong intentions, and space for immigration stamps.
What we were issued are old style of Emergency Certificates, which are handwritten and are absolutely different in appearance than normal Indian passports. We were informed by the Indian Embassy in Budapest that new Emergency Certificates look very similar to normal passports but the embassy was clearing ‘old stock’ hence we were provided these.
Well, hopefully these old stocks are exhausted soon as airport authorities in Budapest and later in Moscow (from where we had connecting flight to Delhi) had tough time understanding what these bulky documents were. The immigration guy at Budapest actually made fun of – but in a jolly way – of this long long document by wrapping it around his head saying it’s as good as a paper crown!
Essentially, you end up spending more time than usual at airports if you are traveling on these Emergency Certificates.
Once back in India, at least the Indian authorities can easily understand what these documents are. In New Delhi’s international airport T3, one is supposed to exit from the counter meant for deportees. So that tour manager’s words came half-true, though we were not treated as deportees!
When we reached that immigration counter in Delhi, there were three guys who were deported and they had to face a lot of questions. I could gather that they were happily living and working in some country after their student visas had expired, and finally they were deported. I got curious to know their story, but our case was cleared in 2 minutes without hassles so I remained curious. Hopefully I never learn about deportation the way I’ve learnt about lost/stolen passports!
Once you exit the immigration in India and be in your motherland, your Emergency Certificates are marked cancelled. Your lost/stolen passports are also automatically cancelled the moment you are issued Emergency Certificates. Therefore, even if you get those stolen passports back, say before you leave the foreign country where you had lost them, you should use Emergency Certificates only for returning to India and not the passports that were reported lost and then found.
Finally, good to be back in India. Really feels good. Three cheers to hyper-nationalism again.
Lessons learnt. Tips for others:
- Always keep soft copies of front and back pages of your passport in your mailbox, mobile gallery, or other handy places.
- Also keep the soft copy of visa that you are issued in your mailbox, etc.
- Till your trip is over and you are back in India, preserve all the boarding passes, and possibly even hotel check-out invoices as they show that you were traveling legally before your passports were lost or stolen.
- If passports are lost or stolen, file a police report/FIR without wasting much time. The written report could be in a local language, but you should know what all information it has.
- Request the police officer to possibly mention the duration of the visa in the report.
- You will not be deported immediately for reporting loss/theft of passport.
- You can continue to travel with a police report and visa details, but don’t get too comfortable!
- Get in touch with the nearest Indian embassy as soon as possible after the passports are lost.
- Carry your passport sized photographs, copies of lost/stolen passports, copy of police report, and cash in local currency to Indian Embassy for obtaining Emergency Certificate.
- Keep enough buffer time for yourself at airports for questions, moving from one counter to another, etc. when you are traveling on Emergency Certificate.
- Keep the police report and Emergency Certificate with you as they will be needed to apply for a new passport.
- Don’t try to lose the passport again!