This is not a post on a cool technological thing. It's a post on where technology needs to lend a helping hand...
As many of you know, I'm going down to Seattle in the middle of March to attend the MVP Global Summit. This is an event where Microsoft gathers as many MVP's as can afford to travel to Seattle to come for 4 days. We're then treated (for a geek) to events including keynotes, learning opportunities, networking and the chance to finally meet many of our fellow MVP's face to face for the very first time. It promises to be a great time, and also very worthwhile in my opinion.
Now, despite living just a couple of hours north of the border, and not actually needing a passport to get into the USA, (I can go in on a drivers license if I drive,) I never travel without one. I don't care if I drive, fly, sail or whatever, I just find it makes life much easier to have a passport on hand. Unfortunately mine expired last year, so it's time to do the renewal.
Now, renewing passports is a pain, and my first big complain is that we have to do it so often. To my understanding, the USA and EEC both have 10 year renewal periods on their passports... Canada's expire after only 5. Why is this? Do they honestly think that I'm going to change that much in the next 5 years? At any rate, off to the passport circus we went...
So here's what you have to do...
- Fill out a 3 page questionaire that basically tells them your name and address(es) over the last few years, where you work, and how long you've been a citizen. In addition, you need a "guarantor", who can be an accountant, doctor or police officer or a few other things, to sign your passport to say they've known you for at least 2 years. Finally, a copule of references who have also known you for at least two years.
- Submit two pictues that are signed by your guarantor (saying they actually look like you)
- Submit your original birth certificate
- Submit a copy (signed by your guarantor) of at least one other piece of ID
- Submit a cheque for about $100
Now, you have the option of mailing (or couriering) you application directly to the National passport office, or taking it in to a cough, cough "local" office. (Our closest is about 2 hours away.) If you take it to the local office, there are two lines... one for those who went to the pain of filling out their application online. They are served first all day long. The other is for the people who downloaded a form and filled it out by hand, or who picked up their application at the post office.
The Online Experience
We did not do our forms online. Sound weird for a techie guy? The reason is that I've heard of a few people who tried, and the attempt was an exercise of frustration.
The site is apparently very very very slow, and sometimes just times out. There is no save feature, so you just lose your info and have to start over. Not cool at all. So here's my first critique on the system. You force us to sign up for an account to use this system, why can't we save our info? Even if it is only for a few days, give the option to save!
You have to mess with your printer settings to print out your application. According to my boss, he was given specific instructions to set his left, right and bottom margins to print the form. The problem I have with this is that the settings are persistent. So for the less experienced computer user who can actually follow these directions, now you have screwed up their system. Why can it not be set up to convert to PDF and print it? That is the whole point of a PDF document, isn't it?
In addition, you can't do any more online than you can by writing by hand. I'm guessing that the advantage is that it comes in an easy scanning font for processing, and maybe some data validation is built in. The big advantage is that you get to jump the queue at the passport office if you go there... we didn't plan on doing that.
Our first step in the process (after getting our forms, I guess,) was to get out passport photos taken. This is a part of the process that just makes me shake my head.
The passport office does not do passport photos. If they did, we would have gone there. Instead, you are sent to find a photographer to do them for you... and I guarantee that they hate it. We went to our local Autmobile Association (BCAA) to get them done. You can see it in their eyes when you say why you're there... they just cringe. (Seriously, our clerk was great, but you know it anyway.)
They sit you on the stool, concentrate for an eternity, tell you not to smile, and SNAP! They take the photo. It prints off on an inkjet printer, then there is a few minutes of measuring it. The rules are something like this:
- You may not smile
- Your face may not exceed a certain number of centimeters in height or width
- Your face may not be smaller than a certain number of centimeters in height or width (probably the same number)
- No glare
- Your head must be x cm's from the top
- A few unknown criteria, left up to the passport office's discretion.
Basically, they want you to look like a crack whore or criminal in your picture. Anything they can do to make that happen will be deemed necessary.
Why am I so bitter about this? I don't care if I can't smile in my photo. To me that actually makes sense, as probably most people don't smile as they hand their passport over to a customs official. I get that. No, what bugs me is the burden on the private businesses.
The passport office is able to reject the photo out of hand, for whatever reason the choose (or not) to disclose. Most businesses are good enough to offer a reshoot for free if it is rejected, and they do their best to make sure that won't happen. But they are guessing as to what is good enough. The rules are subject to the discretion of the Passport office. This hurts the citizen, in their time and passport delay, and the business who bear the cost of labour and materials to shoot and re-shoot the photos. In the intial shot, it took one for me, two for my daughter, and three for my wife to get everything to where "they hoped" they would be accpeted.
If the photo is that important, then why is it not done by the passport office themselves? Why make the citizen, and the business, suffer under this air of uncertainty? Convenience? Personally, I'd rather have to go 8 hours out of my way and KNOW it's accepted than to be sitting where I am now: 1 1/2 months till I travel and hoping that my passport comes through.
The paper application is actually fairly easy. I am an accountant, so I've signed a few of these as guarantor, but it's still a bit unnerving doing your own. The worst part is taking it in to your guarantor, and asking them to sign in the box, making sure that your signature (which is used for what exactly?) does not touch the edges of the box.
There are a couple of things that bug me about the entire appplication process:
- What in there can actually tell them that I am NOT worthy of a passport? It doesn't ask about criminal history. Only where I've lived, what year I got my nationality (and how), and a couple of references. There is nothing I see that would flag me as "suspect"
- I have to send my original birth certificate to them, and they mail it back to me with my passport. Gee, that seems like a real safe thing to do in this era of identity theft, doesn't it?
I would assume that during the passport review process that some kind of criminal record checks and such are done. But does this really need to be done every five years in Canada, where other countries only do it every ten?
In addition, I really question what the application process actually tells Passport Canada that they don't have on file already? And if they don't, then what the heck is the purpose of it in the first place, and what prevents forgeries? Why, if I've had a passport in the past, can I not submit it with updated info, and updated picture, and have the thing renewed? Do they think that the guarantor would say... "No. I don't think that's him anymore. I was sure 5 years ago, but I think that he might be someone else now..."?
If the picture is that vital (which I'm sure it is), why put the burden on private business for it? Sure, they can make money on it, but I'd be surprised to find out that passport photos are a significant part of anyone's business. More of a hassle than a benefit, I would think.
In the end, the biggest beef I have with the system is the uncertainty, and the fact that my official documents are mailed back to me. That is not cool in this day and age. Given my choice, the renewal process would be 99% online: update some info, visit a passport office for an updated photo, and have it couriered back to me (and signed for after producing ID).