Crossing Borders in a Crisis: Passports, Cash, Credit, & Respectability

by Penrod – this is an entry in our non-fiction writing contest.

passportWe recently sent in our passports for renewal. While we don’t do a lot of international traveling- maybe once in 5 years or so- we do keep our passports up to date. Ours expire in August, and since some countries won’t allow entry on a passport with less than six months left on it, it was time to renew. Yes, that does mean that for certain purposes, like entry to another country, passports for practical purposes expire six months before they say they do.

It is true that if things are so bad in the US that we must flee the country, other places may be worse, or may simply refuse Americans entry. On the other hand, getting from Point A in the US to Point B in the US MIGHT require crossing a border. I used to drive from Wisconsin to New England every summer. I usually took the US route, but once I tried the Canadian route. That is where a passport would be critical: it provides route options not open to people who don’t have passports.

Avoiding a problem area in the US might require a circuitous route, either by driving or flying into another country. If one wanted to get from New England to Idaho during a major breakdown in which the entire Midwest was already in chaos, it might be safer/faster to either drive or fly through Canada. Circumstances at the time would dictate that of course, but not having a passport closes off the option.

Or suppose you are in Florida when something terrible happens there: You must get out of the area NOW. All the flights to domestic destinations are filled with panicked travelers, but there are seats open to Mexico City, Belize, and Toronto, and from there you can get to your US destination. Do you consider those options? Not if you don’t have a passport with you.
When we got out of Lebanon in 1975, what is now known as the Battle of the Hotels* had been going on for a week, eventually killing 500 and wounding over 1200 in downtown Beirut.

I was able to quickly get a flight to my preferred destination -Tehran-, but everyone else, who were on their way to the US, simply took “Any flight out of here to a safe place.” That turned out to be Rome, as I recall.

After they got to Rome they got tickets onward and made their way home, but getting out of Beirut TODAY was the primary consideration: ANYWHERE else, Right Now! The road to the airport had been under sniper fire for the week before we left, and the airport was mortared the day after we got out, so this was not foolish haste. Spending the night in Beirut was not a viable option: the hotels were occupied by opposing forces which were shooting at each other with heavy machine guns, mortars, and rockets. The luxury hotel district had become what we would refer to as “a really bad neighborhood.”

At the same time, many Lebanese who could afford it sent their families to other countries to avoid the fighting. They had to have passports to do so. Getting those might not be possible during a breakdown: They had to have them ahead of time.

So, since we do use passports from time to time, we make a point of keeping them up to date, even if we have no current plans to travel outside the US.
Related to passports are cash, credit cards, and respectability. In a crisis, you will need all four to cross a border.

In an extreme crisis, we might need to throw money at a problem. That is where it is extremely important we have at least one credit card with plenty of credit available, and ideally enough cash and/or travelers checks to convince an immigration official in another country to let us in. We will likely also need either a credit card or a lot of cash for an emergency ticket. We might be in a situation where none of those do us any good, but if we need them and don’t have them, the best options close.

Back in the 1970s, I arrived in London looking a bit scruffy. While dapper young men got waved through, the immigration official demanded I prove I had sufficient funds to support myself. Fortunately, I had plenty of travelers checks and an American Express card. He limited my stay to 30 days, but he did let me in.

I was a bit of a slow learner, as I flew from Bangkok to Honolulu looking….not exactly scruffy, mind you, but wearing Indian white cotton pajamas, flip flops, several silver necklaces and bracelets, a very spiffy blue shoulder bag from Burma with a Wheel of Nirvana embroidered on it, and a small book bag for luggage. I then presented a passport filled with drug country entrance and exit stamps.

Do I need to tell you that everything I had was gone over rather thoroughly, including hauling a couple things off for laboratory analysis while I waited? No Grey Man stuff here: I had managed to get their attention.

I was clean, I was a returning citizen, I eventually got in. What if I had been trying to fly into Canada or Europe though? Would I have gotten in? What if it was during a major breakdown? Look respectable when crossing borders, and be squeaky clean. That’s good policy anytime, of course: no matter how depraved you may actually be, try to look normal for the area. Go Grey Man.
Another time I came down with infectious hepatitis in the ethnic Tibetan area of northern India and decided the best course was to fly home via London.

This was a bit of a personal crisis, so I wanted to be as respectable as possible going through ALL airports and immigration stations. Grey Man, that’s me.

I went to the bazaar, got a short haircut, bought some cheap dark slacks, a collared shirt, and some dark glasses to hide my screaming yellow eyeballs, ditched my Indian pajamas, and had no problems with either airlines or the immigration authorities in New Delhi or London.

When I eventually arrived in US Customs in Chicago wearing the same slacks and collared shirt, Mr. Customs man looked at my passport with two sets of additional fold out accordion pages covered with stamps from every major drug country from Morocco to Thailand and demanded to know what I had been doing on my trip. I looked him in the eye and confidently said “Trout fishing.”
He demanded to see my fishing gear. Guess what? I actually had a little telescoping fishing rod, a small reel, and lures in my shoulder bag because I really had gone trout fishing in Northern Pakistan. I still had my Pakistani fishing license. I was respectably dressed. I had been engaged in a respectable activity and could prove it. I was respectable. He let me in without any further questions.

So my policy since has been to keep my passport up to date, stay clean cut, keep plenty of available credit on the card, plenty of cash, and be very polite to Customs officials. In a major crisis, all of those things might be the difference between getting through, and being in very deep kimchi**.

* If you are interested, Wikipedia has a decent account of the battle. Just plug “Battle of the Hotels” into the search field.

** Kimchi is Korean spicy fermented cabbage and vegetables. Deelish, but you don’t want to dive into a vat of it.

If you are interested in what we experienced as civilians in Lebanon as it slowly broke down into a vicious 15-year civil war, see my two previous articles:
Civilian In A Civil War Zone, Part I and Civilian In A Civil War Zone, Part II. Also, don’t miss Georges Fahmy’s article about growing up in Beirut during the civil war.

For pictures of the hotels after the battle, Google Image search for “battle of the hotels Beirut” or “Holiday Inn battle of the hotels Beirut” When the battle started, those hotels were operating and occupied. The hotels got seriously chewed up: they just were not designed against rockets. What would you do to escape AFTER your hotel had been taken over and rockets were coming through the walls? Would you want a passport, cash, credit, and respectability?

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  1. In re-reading this, I see that I did not note that infectious hepatitis (now better known as Hepatitis A) is not all that easy to transmit to others. Traveling from India to England (where I went into St Pancras Hospital for Tropical Diseases for a week or so) was not exposing scores or hundreds of people to hepatitis. In fact, while I was in the hospital, none of the medical staff took any particular precautions around me.

    As Wikipedia says: “The virus spreads by the fecal–oral route, and infections often occur in conditions of poor sanitation and overcrowding.” So, yeah: Yuk. Wash your hands thoroughly after a bowel movement, and the chances of transmitting infectious hepatitis to someone else are approximately zero.

    The problem comes when people with Hep A do not wash their hands and then contaminate water or food, or use farm fields as toilets.

  2. Axelsteve says:

    As far as passports are concerned. Mine is expired but,I do not see a need to renew it since I do not plan to travel abroad.I do not plan on visiting Canada or Mexico any time soon. I do lnow a man who does not drive but he uses a passport for domestic identafication . The cops seem to be good with it.

    • Hi, Axelsteve, Yep: A passport is acceptable ID for just about everything, so far as I know.

  3. Goatlover says:

    You definitely gave me good reasons to renew my passport which is about to expire. Though I have no desire for international travel, we do have some business associates throughout the Caribbean that we could “visit” in an emergency.

    • Hi Goatlover, of course “January” might well be considered sufficient emergency for a couple weeks bugout to the Caribbean….

      • cgbascom says:

        That would be my excuse. Add living in the UP and I might be able to upgrade to first class (I can think of a couple of really sad faces I could use to get my point across) quickly.

  4. American Pacrat says:

    It was an article that I read that prompted us to acquire the passports, along the desire to see Ireland. Time for us to renew them, and they also give us another form of ID in addition to what we already have for the .gov.

    As you stated better to have one available and not need it—than to need one, and not have it. I keep photo copies of our passports with our drivers licenses and ID cards. Copies are in my families custody in case we lose our copies or the originals. Back ups as extra prevention, one never knows what is going on in the world.

    • Hi American Pacrat, keeping photocopies is a REALLY good idea.

      When we travel we take three color copies of each passport’s info pages, and keep them separate from our passports.

      We, too, also leave copies with a friend so that if everything is lost someone else we can contact can provide them.

      The State Department site says:

      “What Do I Need to Replace my Passport Overseas?
      The following list identifies a number of documents/items you should take with you to the embassy/consulate. Even if you are unable to present all of the documents, the consular staff will do their best to assist you to replace your passport quickly. Please provide:

      A Passport Photo (one photo is required; get it in advance to speed the process of replacing your passport)
      Identification (driver’s license, expired passport etc.)
      Evidence of U.S. citizenship (birth certificate, photocopy of your missing passport)
      Travel Itinerary (airline/train tickets)
      Police Report, if available
      DS-11 Application for Passport (may be completed at time of application)
      DS-64 Statement Regarding a Lost or Stolen Passport (may be completed at time of application)”


      To reduce the likelihood of theft, we wear them in a neck pouch similar to this:

      They are not exactly svelte under one’s shirt, but they are secure. A zippered pocket in a shirt is also a good place. We keep some cash ($100 bills) and travelers checks with them in case of an emergency. Enough to keep us eating and sheltered for several days.

      An absolutely terrible place is in your luggage, backpack, or purse. Way too easy to steal, including the ever popular purse snatching in tourist areas.

      Years ago I met a woman who had been going through the Miami International Airport with an envelope containing $400 in her purse (over $2300 in today’s dollars). She got on her flight, and guess what: No envelope. Oopsie, man.

      The list of tourists who have their purses just plain snatched is endless. Purses are for Kleenex and bandaids, not critically important papers and cash, unless one is wearing a purse with a very sturdy strap across the chest. Even then it is best to split up one’s ID and money. Just in case.

      Back in the early 1970s I was hitchhiking in Spain and a very nice fellow in a nice, new, four door sedan stopped to pick me up. I threw my backpack into his trunk, and he very nicely drove away with it.

      All my travelers checks, my passport, ticket home, camera, travel journal, and clothes were in it. I was left standing there with the clothes on my back, a ten dollar bill, and an American Express card for emergencies. You cannot live cheaply on an American Express card. Major problem. I survived, but I also learned never to put the most important stuff in the luggage, and never trust strangers.

      • My husband & I also keep digital images of our passports & driver’s licences on our phones, as well as photocopies in our email.

        • Hi Grancy, I like both those ideas. Thanks!

          If your email is stored online, rather than just on your computer, it would be available anywhere even if your computer and phone were stolen.

          Of course, you’d have to remember your password….

  5. Mine doesn't expire for years says:

    Great piece.
    You’ve got me wondering how long it takes to renew a US passport these days? Here and there I’ve been hearing that it’s getting harder and harder to GET one; if it also takes forever to RENEW one, that could be a serious issue if SHTF while you’re waiting…

    • Hi Mine, Since we were renewing still-current passports and it isn’t quite summer rush, I think it took around five weeks. Not sure exactly as they arrived while we were traveling.

      Here is the State Department site with lots more info. They say if renewing by mail 6-8 weeks, and 2-3 for expedited. If there is a widespread and serious crisis, of course, those numbers could change significantly.

      Really fast: “Call us to make an appointment for emergency passport service in case of a life or death emergency.

      Life or death emergencies are serious illnesses, injuries, or deaths in your immediate family that require you to travel outside the United States within 72 hours (3 business days).”


      Again, this could change dramatically in a widespread crisis.

  6. Jesse Mathewson says:

    I am working on getting secondary alternatives. However, you make some great points!

    • Hi Jesse, secondary alternatives are always better than nothing. We keep our old passports and drivers licenses for that very reason. Even expired, they are official government photo ID. They won’t be accepted everywhere, but they are better than waltzing up to an official and saying earnestly “My name is Joseph Shmoe. Really. I wouldn’t lie to you. Really.”

  7. Gordon Rottman says:

    Many do not realize that if you drive into Mexico from the US you do not need a passport so long as you remain inside the Frontier Zone. You do not even stop at the border custom station If you drive further into Mexico you must have a passport and valid credit card. You have to obtain a visa at the border post. Some 30-40 miles inside Mexico are additional custom stations where they check your visa and passport.
    However, regardless of if your drive further into Mexico or remain in the Frontier Zone, for you to return to the US you must have a valid US passport and they will check it at the US border station.

    • Thanks, Gordon. Good points.

      One can also use a US Passport Card, although I don’t know what Mexico thinks of them for going further into the interior.

      State Department: “The passport card is a wallet-size travel document that can only be used to re-enter the United States at land border-crossings or ports-of-entry by sea from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. The card provides a smaller, more convenient, and less expensive alternative to the passport book for those who travel frequently to these destinations by land or sea.” The Passport Card cannot be used for air travel at all, and only to limited places by sea or land.

    • Jesse Mathewson says:

      Gordon that is 100% incorrect, per the 2004 IRTPA passage you HAVE to have a border crossing card, enhanced drivers licenses (eg feds etc.,) or a passport…because, FREEDOM.

      • azrealityprepper says:

        Jesse Mathewson,
        Actually, with all due respect, Gordon is correct. You don not need a passport or any other document to go INTO Mexico as long as you stay inside the Frontier. It is coming back INTO the USA that you need a border crossing card or passport. Other legal docs include the ‘enhanced drivers license’ that certain states issue (according to the DHS website.), Military ID when traveling on official orders, Merchant Marine ID.

  8. Passport expired a while ago. Live in N Florida in lumber and wild life reserves. Pine trees and sand. First if something happens NO FLIGHTS in or out. Any form of attack flight shut down post 9-11. If your in the Disneyworld area heading to Everglades or north to Ga would be safer. You would have to be careful in Ga. due to military areas. No one wants to go to the Everglades but Gators are delicious and can be used for a lot.
    With the problems there are right now I wouldn’t fly.

  9. OldAlaskan says:

    Living in Alaska I would choose to drive if I had to flee. That means going through Canada. By doing this we would be able to take most of our supplies with us and once in Canada allow us to choose which point of entry to go to. So we would need passports for the family. We have driven the Alaska Highway many times in both winter and summer so I feel confident that we could do it and we have a small bag of Canadian money to help us along.

  10. mom of three says:

    Make sure you don’t have anything on your record that could get you in trouble in Canada, even 20 years ago the internet was still a baby, so if you had anything in your past they now can pull it up and cause alot of Hell.. Our neighbor can’t go to Canada, for 10 years another old neighbor 5 years. They don’t look at our laws the same as we do.

  11. azrealityprepper says:

    Passports are versatile documents even if travelling domestically only. Accepted at all TSA checkpoints as ID. Living close to Mexico, it is mandatory if you ever think of even day shopping or eating authentic, in order to return to the U.S., gotta have the passport or the passport card. Don’t know anyone with an “enhanced drivers license”…whatever that is. We update ours when they get within 6 months of expiration, because a lot of countries will not let you in if there is only 6 months or less until expiration. Make photocopies and keep in a separate wallet away from your regular wallet when outside the country, along with extra cash. I even keep a third “throwaway” wallet to give to the robber when held up, it holds a quantity of local cash too.

  12. Having traveled most of my life, the one piece of advice I give people is to remember you check your constitutional rights at the door as you are leaving our country. Other countries don’t give a shot what rights you have in America, they don’t apply there.

  13. You bring up some valid points; but, in this case they do not apply to me or the DW. The DW has never had passports and mine expired years ago; although I think the DD still maintains a valid one she got when she had a chance to visit Spain her freshman year in college. My international travel only consists of Canada and Mexico and the DW only to Canada, and these were decades ago when passports were not required. The closest international border to my location is Canada to the north; but, that’s not an option we would consider at some 175 miles and 3+ hours, when there are better, safer places within Ohio and Kentucky closer to our south.
    As for credit cards, we have two of them, with one being from our main bank with the checking and savings, an only there for overdraft protection that has never been used.
    We’ve had our main credit card (fee free for life) since 1990 an it has a very large credit limit, that quite honestly I don’t even recall at this time, since if you use the card regularly and responsibly, the bank just keeps slowly raising the limit.
    While this article doesn’t apply to me and our lifestyle, it does present some very insightful information for those who contemplate a different SHTF scenario.

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