Passport control: outside your control?

Theo’s UK passport application

Using his New Zealand passport, Theo travelled from New Zealand to the United Kingdom on 26 May 2015, with return flights booked for 12 June 2015.

Theo had recently become entitled to seek UK citizenship and on 29 May, he visited a UK passport office to enquire about applying for a UK passport for the first time. To obtain a UK passport, Theo had to provide his New Zealand passport to the UK authorities.

Theo told the passport office he only had two weeks in the UK before he had to travel home using his New Zealand passport. Theo was encouraged to submit his application and was advised that:

a)                  the passport processing times were reasonably fast, and

b)                  it only took two days to withdraw an application.

 

Delays

Prior to Theo’s return date of 12 June, he contacted the passport office for an update. Theo was told that the advice he had previously received from the passport office was incorrect; it could take up to two weeks to withdraw a first time UK passport application.

Theo withdrew his application, and changed his return flight date to 21 June. The flight change cost Theo $650, and he also had to purchase new train tickets costing about $100. Theo received his New Zealand passport back on 20 June and travelled home on 21 June.

 

Theo’s claim

Theo made a claim to his travel insurer for $750. The travel insurer declined Theo’s claim, saying Theo’s additional travel expenses did not result from an unforeseen circumstance outside his control (a requirement of the policy).

Theo did not agree. On the initial advice he received from the passport office, Theo was satisfied his passport application would be processed before his departure date. Moreover, if the application was not going to be processed in time, Theo thought he would be able to withdraw his application and receive back his New Zealand passport within only two days.

Theo said he took reasonable steps to ensure his New Zealand passport would be back within his possession by 12 June. Theo said that he could not have foreseen, and it was outside his control, that he would receive incorrect advice from the passport office.

Theo complained to FSCL.

 

Review

We accepted Theo could not reasonably have foreseen he would receive incorrect advice from the passport office. At the same time, while overseas, a person’s passport is their most crucial possession and they have a responsibility to ensure it is within their control when they intend to travel.

In our view, regardless of the passport office’s original advice on 29 May, Theo took a considerable risk relinquishing his New Zealand passport to the UK authorities only nine working days before he was due to return to New Zealand on 12 June. This was because:

  • It is reasonable for travellers to ensure passport applications are submitted well before any pending travel dates because it is common for countries to have lengthy passport processing times.
  • Theo’s time in the UK was very short; it was reasonably foreseeable Theo would not receive his New Zealand passport back before 12 June.
  • It would have been prudent for Theo to check the official UK passport website which says it can take six weeks to process a first time UK passport. The website also recommends no travel is booked until a passport application has been completed.
  • There was no urgency surrounding Theo’s application for a UK passport; he could have done this from New Zealand without any time pressures.

Theo did not accept our initial view on his complaint, and felt we were ‘passing judgment’ on the judgment call he made that he could reasonably expect his New Zealand passport to be returned before 12 June. Theo thought we were saying he was foolish to trust the passport office’s advice.

We issued a formal Recommendation reiterating our initial view that Theo’s complaint was not upheld.  We could see that Theo took a calculated risk to apply for his UK passport only nine working days before 12 June. However, we did not think it reasonable for the insurer to take responsibility for that.

 

Our insight

Insurance is based on risk. An insurance company is entitled to decide the level of risk it is prepared to take when issuing a policy. Not all risks will necessarily be covered by a insurance policy.