In May of 2018 we went to the U.S. consulate in Shanghai, China to renew our passports. Dannie’s passport was set to expire in early 2019, and we new we’d need to resolve that soon or we’d run into trouble. That’s just another challenge you face when you are slow traveling full time. We had made the decision to settle down for a while in Dali, China, and this was going to be our last hurried trip before returning to our regular routine (which is not very routine at all).
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But there was one piece of information we were missing and it was causing quite a dilemma for us. We knew that our old passports would be voided. We knew that the Chinese visa within them would still be valid. But the question was, when is the old passport voided, and who has it during the renewal process? Getting your passport renewed in China takes 2-4 weeks. Because they produce the physical passport in the United States and ship it to China, there is no way to expedite it, no matter how much you want to.
In the meantime, we didn’t really want to book a whole month in Shanghai, the most expensive city in China. We wanted to visit a few other places that would require us to travel by air or rail.
So we needed to know…
While Our Passport is Being Renewed Overseas, Do We Get to Keep the Old One?
2-4 weeks would be along time to go without your passport while overseas. In fact, anything more than zero days is pretty much unacceptable. Your passport is your lifeline while you are traveling. It’s your ticket to travel and your ticket home. It’s where your visas are stored, and it has critical information about you. It’s recommended that you carry a photocopy of your passport in a safe place, just in case you lose it. But that won’t do you any good in a lot of situations.
Things You Need Your Passport For While Traveling
- Train Stations, Airports and Buses - Any time you make a long distance trip overseas, this is the identification they want to see. When traveling in Europe and Asia, we’ve been flashing our little blue books at ticket booths, security checks, and even to officers that do random checks in the middle of a train ride. Without your passport you’re going nowhere fast.
- Hotel Check-In - In hotels all over the world, you will need to present your passport as identification when you check into a hotel. Some Airbnbs might not bother with this (read our Airbnb Tips for Slow Travel), but normally, a passport is needed. This is especially important in China, where some hotels aren’t even allowed to host foreigners, and the ones that do are required to register your stay with the government.
- Holding Your Visas - The passport is where your visas go, if you lose your passport you’ll have to get new visas, and that is a headache you don’t need.
- Getting SIM Cards, Bank Accounts, Etc. - When you are traveling for a long time, you might need access to that country’s financial or communications infrastructure. In many cases a passport will be required.
- Emergencies - I won’t run through a laundry list of worst case scenarios (I don’t want to think about them and neither do you), but there many situations where emergency responders or government officials might need to identify you or make contact with your government. Your passport is the easiest way for them to do this. It’s also your best way to prove your identity if you need help from a U.S. consulate.
So you must get to keep it, right? Right? I mean, you must. They can’t just leave you without your ID. But… If I was wrong, and we booked our travel plans during those 2-4 weeks, then we’d be completely screwed. We’d have to cancel our appointment, cancel our flights and hotels, and rent a place in Shanghai for the whole month because it might take four weeks to get it back. If we didn’t have our passports, we couldn’t take a flight or even check into a new hotel. I was 90 percent sure this wouldn’t be the case, but I just had to find out for sure.
The first thing I did was try searching the internet. There was nothing. I tried rephrasing my question a dozen ways, and I couldn’t even find a forum where someone had asked before. I couldn’t believe I was the first person to wonder whether the consulate kept your passport. I found plenty of sites giving addresses etc for the consulates. I found about a million sites that tell you that the old passport is returned by mail with the old one when you apply at home. But absolutely nothing about our particular situation. I knew there were thousands of American expats living in China and I wondered how they all knew what to do here without asking online.
I searched around the U.S. consulate website, and it didn’t have the information, just links to which forms to fill out, where to apply, how to make an appointment, and instructions for picking up your new passport. It said that you had to bring your old passport, along with a photocopy, but do they take your old passport or just hand it back to you and keep the photocopy?
Calling the Consulate
I decided to give the consulate a call, and after waiting through a few automated recordings I reached an operator. I told her “I need to ask a question about renewing my passport.” She said she would redirect me to the appropriate line. It rang a few times and a recorded voice came on. It said that the official was away from their desk and that there was no way to leave a message. Not very helpful.
I called again. The same operator answered, and I said “I need to ask a question about renewing my passport but please don’t redirect m….” and I was cut off as she redirected me to the same recording. I tried again at a different time of day, and again on another day. Utterly useless.
The Best I Could Do
Finally, I decided to do dig deeper in Google, and just click through page after page of search results, watching as the articles became even less relevant than they already were. Eventually, I found this article on Ottsworld.com. In the last paragraph the author wrote:
“One of the lovely things about getting your passport renewed while you are traveling outside of the US is that you don’t have to hand it over and be ‘passportless’ for weeks while they go through the process of renewing it. Instead, they simply take a copy and you keep your passport until the new one comes in. There are some advantages to living overseas!”
For the life of me I don’t know why Google was burying this information. Granted, it was written 9 years ago, and it was talking about a consulate in Vietnam instead of China, but it was good enough for me and I told Dannie we could pull the trigger and book some travel while our passports were being processed.
Because I found that article useful, I thanked the author in her comments section (hint, hint), and vowed to myself that I would link to it if and when I got around to writing about our own experience. Her story is also entertaining, so go read it.
When we finally arrived in Shanghai, we were very careful to make sure we had everything we needed with us. Any mistake would mean having to reschedule our appointment (probably at least a week later) and either redo the trip another time or cancel our travel plans for the duration of the renewal. Here’s what we made sure we brought.
- All of Our Old Passports
- Photocopies of All of Our Old Passports - We even got color copies just to make sure everything was clear. The copy has to be a high resolution image of the biodata (biographical-data) page.
- Two completed DS-82 Forms - One for me and one for Dannie. The only part we left blank was the mailing address because of an uncertainty that I’ll discuss later. They must be printed single-sided.
- One Completed DS-11 Form - The DS-11 form is like the DS-82 form except for passports that were valid for less than 10 years. Children’s passports fall into this category. Once again, single-sided.
- Recent Photos - There are photo booths in the underground metro stations in Shanghai that can take photos meeting U.S. passport photo requirements.
- Photos of Lisa Aging - In order to prevent child trafficking and other crimes, you must prove that your child is yours when getting her a passport overseas. We’re glad we noticed this requirement because it was only mentioned on one page on the Shanghai Consulate website. It was never mentioned in the forms. We brought four images of Lisa over the last year year to show how her appearance had changed over time since her last passport photo was taken.
- Lisa’s Original Birth Certificate - When you are traveling full time, you have to carry a lot of documents.
- A Photocopy of Lisa’s Birth Certificate - Once again, we got a color copy, just to be sure.
- An American Credit Card - The U.S. Consulate in Shanghai accepts American credit cards, U.S. Dollars and Chinese Yuan. We had a bunch of Yuan with us just in case there was a problem with the credit card (you never know when you’re traveling). Here’s a link to the fees and the payment forms they accept. You should probably check just to make sure nothing has changed.
- Our Appointment Slips - The consulate website says to print out your appointment, which you make on this website (it’s the same website for all the U.S. consulates in China). We made our appointments, saved the receipt page as a PDF and had it printed in our hotel lobby. We were staying in the SSAW Boutique Hotel: Shanghai Bund (affiliate link). They spoke English, and they seemed to cater to a lot of westerners. It was about 15 minutes from the consulate.
The U.S. Consulate in Shanghai
The Correct Address of the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai
On the consulate website, they (somewhat) correctly describe the location as inside the Westgate Mall, but they incorrectly list the address as 1469 Huai Hai Zhong Road. That is an old address that has not been updated. The map on the consulate website is also wrong. The address of the Westgate mall is 1038 West Nanjing Road (Google Maps), and you can tell your taxi or Didi driver to take you to 梅龙镇广场. The consulate is actually on the 8th floor of the Westgate Tower on the east side of the building.
Note, that in order to use Google Maps on your phone in China, you will need a Virtual Private Network service (VPN). We use ExpressVPN, and you can read our ExpressVPN review here.
Inside the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai
When we got inside, we were directed past the long line of Chinese citizens applying for U.S. Visas, to the U.S. Citizen Services department. We had to hand over all of our devices and pointy objects and basically go through the equivalent of airport security. They gave us a tag to reclaim our items when we left. Inside, we took a number and sat down to wait.
At no point did anyone ask to see our appointment slip, but I still wouldn’t recommend going in without one. Even though we all made our own appointments spaced apart by 15 minutes, they chose to take care of all of us at the same time. But once again, I would still recommend making appointments for everyone in your party, because getting the appointment slips is as simple as printing a PDF. Instead of using the scheduled appointment times, we were told to take a number and they called us up to the window.
The clerk went over our documents and applications, and asked us to fill in the mailing address. We had left that spot blank because we weren’t sure whether they wanted our mailing address in the U.S. or in China. They wanted the one in China. Despite what it says on the consulate website, the new passport CAN be mailed to you, but only if you have a mailing address within the city. If you want them mailed, you tell them so at the window. We told them we would pick up the passports in person after our trip to Nanchang, and we gave them the address of the apartment we rented in Dali, China. They took our Chinese phone number and our email address so they could contact us when the passports were ready.
Update: A reader named Collin shared his experience in the comments section, and among many other great clarifications and elaborations - which you should read when you are finished with this article - he pointed out the following “5) For clarification, if you want them to mail the NEW passport to you rather than returning to the Consulate to pick it up, they have to invalidate your OLD passport that day.” This didn’t occur to us because we were ineligible for mailing and didn’t think about it, but of course they would never have the chance to invalidate your old passport if you kept it and the new one got mailed. SO, no matter where you live, if you need to keep your old passport in the interim, don’t plan on having the new one mailed to you.
After our applications were approved, we were sent back to the waiting room until they were ready for our interview. This was when we needed those photos of Lisa. The interview was geared toward making sure we were Lisa’s parents, because she was a minor. In addition to showing the photos we also had to raise our hands and make a pledge. It was a little weird.
Finally, we were sent over to the payment window where we paid with our Visa card. For two adults and one child, the whole process cost $335. We were at the consulate for about an hour. Once we paid, THEY GAVE US BACK OUR OLD PASSPORTS, which were not yet voided, so we wouldn’t have to go without them for a long, unspecified period of time. Hooray!
Shortly after leaving we ran back inside when we realized we still had our tag and needed to go reclaim our cell phone. Nobody’s perfect.
Picking Up Our New Passports at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai
About two and a half weeks later while we were visiting relatives in Nanchang, we got an email informing us that our passports were ready. We booked one night at another Shanghai hotel and flew back to pick them up. We were instructed to make appointments for pickup as well, and we made one for each of us. The first was at 9:00 and we were late. We hit rush hour traffic on the way there and a drive that was supposed to take 45 minutes took an hour and a half instead. Also, Lisa thew up all over herself in the car.
But other than that, it went smoothly. Once again, no one checked our appointment, we picked up our new passports, let them punch holes in our old ones and we were done. Of course, now when we travel we each have to carry two passports around with us. We need our new one because the old one is no longer valid, but we need the old one because it has our Chinese Visa in it. It’s an inconvenience, but hardly the end of the world. We’re looking into ways to get the visa transferred into our new passport, and we’ll update this post or write a new one when we figure it out.
So all that worry beforehand was for nothing. We didn’t have to give up our current passports while we were waiting for our new ones to process. Because we were careful while preparing our documents and researching the consulate, everything went as smoothly as we could have hoped. We even had time to visit the Shanghai Disney Resort while we were there.
If you found this post helpful, you might also be interested in our post about Applying for a Chinese Visa in Hong Kong, or you might want to see some of the places we’ve written about in China so far, like Xiamen, or Dali. To see some of the other places we’ve visited, check out our destinations page. To help support us and to read about our efforts to monetize our blog to support our travels, check out our monthly series, Operation Digital Nomad.