Australian passport lifehacks, the unpaid version

If Alex Kidman can get a Lifehacker article out of a last minute passport application, I can get a blog entry.

I’ve had cause to apply for too many Australian passports in the last couple of years (mine and both of my children), and lo, I come to share my wisdom.

The online form

The passport office has an online version of the application form you can fill in. My advice: unless you are eligible for an renewal, do not bother with the online passport form.

All the online form does is generate a document you need to print out and take to a post office and it’s almost impossible to get the printer settings right to the point where I’m yet to meet anyone who actually has done so (apparently the passport office is very picky about it being printed in exactly the right size, in a way that printer drivers just don’t support). Plus, as Ruth Ellison noted in 2008 (and it looks like the website has not been redone since), the user experience is dreadful. Instead, go to the post office, pick up a paper application form, take it away and fill it out. And this is coming from someone who hand-writes so seldom she can’t reliably replicate her own signature any more, so you know I’m serious.

Actually, grab two forms, because they’re also fussy about any mistakes you make on it and it might be better to just complete a second form if you make one. (When I say “they”, it’s actually not clear if the passport office is incredibly fussy or if the post offices are overcautious on their behalf. But it doesn’t matter to you, normally. Someone is fussy.)

If you are renewing, it generates a single page form for you to sign. This is more reasonable to print. Make sure when you print it that no part of the form has been cut off at the edges of the paper and this seems to suffice. The alternative is calling the passport office and they will print this form for you and mail it to you.

Passport timelines

The Australian Passport Office is pretty good about its timelines (10 working days for a normal application, 2 if you pay an additional priority fee of roughly 50% of the cost of a normal application), but the trick is they do not include Australia Post’s part of the process. That is, they do not include the time taken for the application to be transported to them, nor the time Australia Post takes to deliver it back to you. The delivery is especially tricky because they mail it to you registered post at your residential address. Registered post is delivered to people, not mailboxes, so unless you tend to be home all day, you will miss the delivery and need to pick up from a post office, probably the next day.

So, you can read their processing time something like this:

Normal application They say 10 working days or less. However, apply at least three weeks and ideally more before you need the document if you want to receive it in the post. If it’s a near thing, pay the priority fee or, if you live near a passport office, ask the post office to mark it as for collection at the passport office, and they ring you and you go and pick it up there the day it is ready rather than having it take multiple days in the post. (Source: my husband did a normal application with passport office pickup in March 2013.)

Priority application They say 2 days. But the post office’s part takes at least that long again. I can tell you from hard-won personal experience this week that the post office did not consider 5 business days enough time for me to get one through applying through them, and that’s in Sydney where it’s only one day to deliver it to the passport office. So this is really more “dammit, just missed the 10 days cutoff” option than the “I’m travelling within the week!” option.

“But I am travelling within the week!” You need to book a passport interview at a capital city passport office, where they will take your documents and start your 2 working day countdown that second. Ring the passport office, eventually if you are patient with their phone tree you get through to an operator who will make you an appointment. You will get a passport 2 working days after that appointment. (The Passport Office is quite strict with themselves about working days. I did a passport interview Thursday, I have a receipt saying my passport is due for completion at 11:44am Monday!) I was told if your appointment is within those 2 working days to spare you may get promised one faster at the discretion of the passport officer who interviews you, but no promises at the time of booking.

However, again from hard-won personal experience, they could have a two or three day wait for an appointment, which puts you pretty much back at the post office’s timeline. Call them back daily to see if a slot has opened up: I originally had an appointment on Friday afternoon having been assured that Wednesday and Thursday were booked solid, but when I rang on Thursday morning they had an appointment available within two hours.

“But I’m travelling within the day!” Read Alex Kidman’s article. It sounds like the process is to turn up sans appointment and have at least one of a very pressing need or a very apologetic approach to them, and they may give you a slot freed by a no-show and can produce a passport within the day in some cases. Whirlpool, which you can usually rely upon to contain a gloomy bunch of know-it-alls looking forward to explaining how you’ve stuffed it all up, also has largely positive stories.

Proving citizenship

There are no hacks, this is a total pain in the butt and seems capable of holding up passport applications for years or forever.

I luckily have the most clear-cut claim: I was born in Australia before 20 August 1986, I have citizenship by right of birth alone. But even one of my children, who has the super-normal case of citizenship by right of Australian birth combined with two citizen parents at the time of his birth, had one set of documents rejected (incorrectly, in my opinion, but I don’t award passports). Ruth Ellison, a naturalised citizen, writes that she needed to add time to get documentation that was in her parents’ possession. Chally Kacelnik, after digging up evidence of her mother’s permanent residency at the time of her birth, still faced pushback as to its status. A Whirlpool poster, estranged from their parents and therefore unable to get them to provide documents proving their citizenship, seemed unable to prove citizenship by descent as of the end of their thread despite living in Australia their whole life.

I have the very limited consolation of a slight acquaintance with other country’s processes fairly recently and can report that they are often just as reliant on hoping that someone in the family is the type of person who flees countries with a complete set of personal identity documents and someone else who keeps a stash of passports belonging to people who’ve since died, and so on. That is, no consolation.

Updates January 2018:

There is now a truly online passport application for adults, with the post office doing identity verification rather than accepting entire printed forms for lodgement. I have no experience of this application method, but expect it is an improvement.

The Department of Home Affairs provides a Evidence of Australian Citizenship document to those whose claim to Australian citizenship is not one of the more obvious routes.

Proving Australian citizenship when parents are born after 1986

Update January 2018: the Department of Home Affairs provides a Evidence of Australian Citizenship document to those whose claim to Australian citizenship is not one of the more obvious routes.

I know people who’ve had trouble with this, and won’t tell their specific stories, but a note now that I am applying for a passport for my son.

Australian citizenship is no longer by right of birth: if you were born on or after 20 August 1986, there are various more complicated ways it is acquired. One is being born in Australia and having at least one parent who is an Australian citizen or permanent resident at the time of your birth. Therefore, my son’s passport application has this section:

Please mark which of these documents you will provide at interview (you must present the original):
to prove that the child is an Australian citizen or to prove that one of the child’s parents was either an Australian citizen or a permanent resident of Australia at the time of the child’s birth.

  • The child’s Australian passport issued on/after 01/01/2000 and valid at least two years
  • One parent’s full Australian birth certificate (parent born prior to 20/08/86)
  • One parent’s Australian passport (issued on/after 20/08/86, valid two years)
  • One parent’s Australian citizenship certificate
  • One parent’s Australian permanent resident status

Both my husband and I were born in Australia before 1986, and in addition we happened to hold Australian passports before our son was born in any case, so we have a surfeit of evidence that will satisfy them that he’s a citizen.

But people born in, say, September 1986 are turning 27 this year, and therefore there’s lots of parents and soon-to-be parents whose Australian birth certificates are not sufficient proof of their own Australian citizenship, let alone their child’s status. So it’s very easy to imagine a situation existing right now where someone will need to show up with a grandparent’s birth certificate in addition to a parent’s and their own, and so on. By 2040 or earlier a great-grandparent may be required if no one in the family has held passports in intervening generations (great-grandparent born before August 1986, has a child at age 18+ in 2004, a grandchild in 2022 and a great-grandchild in 2040).

The easiest way around this for citizen-parents seems to be making sure one holds an Australian passport β€” because it stands on its own, unlike post-1986 birth certificates β€” before a child’s birth, which is not really foremost in one’s mind at the time. Oh, and be sure to keep it in a safe place until you or any of your children need evidence of their citizenship (usually but not always when they first need a passport themselves), because without it they’ll be back in the same documentation pickle. An increasing number of Australian-born people are going to have to go through the prior process of assembling potentially burdensome proof of citizenship involving either a string of ancestral birth certificates*, or a bunch of evidence of Australian residence on their 10th birthday (see Table B in documenting citizenship). I’d have trouble now proving my own Australian residence at age 10, frankly.

Australia is far from alone in not awarding citizenship by right of birth alone, so I assume there’s either a lot of people around the world who struggle to get passports, or other countries have processes that are more mature and less reliant on finding an ancestor who was unconditionally a citizen.

* Or worse, trying to get hold of 40 year old evidence of someone’s permanent residency, which I suspect is not as available for purchase later on as birth certificates are.

Getting a passport in Australia

See Lindsey Kuper on a expedited US passport, here we have another “life in Australia” comparison piece.

Step 1: obtain passport form. If you are an adult renewing an existing adult passport that has been expired for less than 24 months, you can do this online. Otherwise, obtain form from nearest post office.

Step 2: track down someone β€” usually just another passport holder β€” to be your photo referee (ie, to agree that it is you in the picture). Gather relevant documentation, that is, proof of identity and of citizenship. If you were born in Australia on or after 20 August 1986, see below.

Step 3: ring up local post office for passport interview, usually granted within the week. If you need it sooner, call several post offices in turn or go to the Passport Office (in a capital city).

Step 4: attend post office. Have them take your photo, these days, because if they don’t approve it, they can take it again. Have interview, which in fact largely consists of having your documentation and photo checked for validity.

Step 5: pay fee ($233), extra $103 for priority.

Priority passports are printed to be mailed within 2 business days, other applications within 10. They arrive registered post (ie, signature required). If you require one within 2 days, it seems you need to attend a Passport Office in person and hope they can help.

Given that I understand it takes weeks and weeks to get a USA passport if not expedited, 10 days is not too bad.

Born in Australia on or after 20 August 1986? Tricky! This is when Australia stopped granting citizenship by right of birth alone. So you need proof of citizenship, which can include:

  • evidence that you were born in Australia and that one of your parents was either a citizen or permanent resident at the time of your birth
  • evidence that you were born in Australia and that you were still a resident of Australia on your 10th birthday (school records and so on)
  • evidence that you were born in Australia and were not eligible for any other citizenship
  • see also

This diversion has been known to be lengthy. πŸ™ It’s also just about impossible to get one as a minor if your guardians don’t agree to you travelling.

Have a small child with you?

Good luck with that, because the photo standards require straight on face shot with open eyes and neutral facial expression. Try getting your pre- or semi-verbal child to do that.