The passport stamps that could ruin your next break

passport stamps cuba travel uk holidays overseas border control
Cuba was put back on the US State Sponsors of Terrorism list in January 2021, carrying with it strict rules about travel history - Getty

During his final days of office, Donald Trump made a decision that would have far-reaching implications for Cuba and the holidaymakers who visit – he placed the country on a list of ‘State Sponsors of Terrorism’ alongside North Korea, Iran and Syria. It means those who’ve been to the island since the decision can no longer officially travel to the USA under the Esta visa waiver scheme.

Instead, they must apply for a B-2 visa in order to visit the States. Applications have to be made in person at the US Embassy in London or the Consulate General in Belfast, at far greater cost than obtaining an Esta ($160 as opposed to $21). It makes a last-minute getaway untenable too: the embassy’s ticket booking channel currently states that scheduling an appointment “may take several months”.

A string of messages on Tripadvisor highlights uncertainty over the issue as well as a lack of information from official sources. Guidance is opaque and enforcement reportedly patchy.

While a spokesperson for the FDCO said that it keeps its travel advice “under constant review” and advised the public to consult the US State Department website before travel, neither body seems to have updated its guidance since Trump’s decision. There’s no mention of Cuba on the Esta application form. However, the scheme’s homepage clearly asks visitors if they’ve been, referring them to guidance that states “if a traveller is found to have visited a country designated as State Sponsor of Terrorism, the traveller is no longer eligible to participate in the Visa Waiver Programme”.

Despite this, there are several online reports of travellers gaining entry to the US under the Esta scheme although they’d previously travelled to Cuba. This could be because, according to online visa check service iVisa, Cuban authorities generally stamp separate visitor cards instead of passports on entry. If you’re going to the country and plan to visit the States in the future, it’s worth specifying that you don’t want your passport stamped.

Issues do arise: older passports may display Cuban stamps while The Independent previously reported incidents in which travellers who had visited Cuba subsequently had their Estas revoked while en route to America. Travel agents have also revealed that some customers are cancelling Cuban holidays in order to avoid future problems. If you have a Cuba passport stamp or the rules affect you in any other way, the safest option would be to travel on a B-2 visa, leaving plenty of time to secure one before jetting off.

This isn’t the only thing that could catch you out at Border Control. Read on for other issues to be aware of…

Which other countries could cause me problems?

In 2013, Israel stopped stamping visitors’ passports due to the problems it caused for those hoping to travel to other parts of the Middle East. Currently, if evidence of a previous stay in Israel is found, Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Yemen will deny travellers entry.

To get around the issue, leisure travellers to Israel now have pieces of paper stamped instead, which they must keep in their passports for the duration of their stays. However, people who travel overland between Israel and Jordan (such as many of those taking escorted tours in the region) face another issue: the passport stamps they’re given in Jordan clearly state entry or exit point. Travellers passing between the two countries are advised to avoid any issues by asking officials to refrain from stamping their passports.

Iran also bid goodbye to passport stamps in 2019, in the hope that it would alleviate issues for travellers who subsequently wanted to visit the States or indeed Israel (there have been unconfirmed reports of people with Iranian passport stamps being held and interrogated at Israeli airports).

Are there any other stamps to avoid?

As we detailed here, there are some seemingly innocent passport stamps that could also ruin your holiday. Across the globe, from Antarctica to Hiroshima via the Welsh village of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, attractions offer novelty stamps to tourists keen to prove they’ve visited. Putting one in your passport could have disastrous consequences though. In 2020, Tina Sibley garnered worldwide publicity when she was refused boarding on a flight from Madrid to Thailand due to a novelty Machu Picchu stamp which Qatar Airways deemed to have rendered her passport invalid (she had to get a new emergency passport in order to fly). Though Thailand is known to be particularly strict when it comes to damaged or defaced passports, many other countries (including the US and Australia) also take a firm stance on these stamps so it’s best to steer clear.

Are there any stamps I should definitely get?

In 2021 the FCDO updated its advice to recommend that UK tourists entering and exiting the Schengen area should check that their passports had been stamped. It followed reports of problems at border control caused by people failing to get exit stamps on previous visits: they were therefore unable to prove that they’d been in the EU for less than the allowed 90 days.

A new automated system (EES) to register non-EU nationals will be in place in late 2023 according to the European Commission (though there have been multiple delays) but, until it’s fully functional, it’s wise to double check that your passport displays the relevant information – and to ask for a stamp if not.

If you’ve already visited Europe and haven’t been given an exit stamp, make sure you carry copies of your previous travel documents in order to avoid any problems.

As we detailed here, all these EU passport stamps take up valuable space. As all countries require passports to have at least one blank page by law (and some ask for three), make sure there’s enough room in yours before you travel.

What if my passport’s a bit tatty?

It’s not just novelty stamps that could ruin your holiday. Missing pages, stains and tears can all be enough for officials to deny you entry, as one Tripadvisor user found when he was detained in Kuala Lumpur for two days before being deported thanks to a tear caused by a stapled visa. According to HM Passport Office, a passport is officially damaged if personal details are difficult to read, there’s potential for a substitute photo to be inserted, the name page is faded, the passport is stained, pages are torn, defaced or missing, or the chip is damaged or visible on the back cover. If you’re concerned that your passport doesn’t meet the criteria, it’s worth getting a new one – but leave plenty of time as damaged passports can’t be replaced using fast-track services.

Any other issues to be aware of?

Since Britain left the EU, there’s been an issue with UK passports nearing their expiry date. Before 2018, any leftover time on an old British passport was added to a new one, extending the validity to more than a decade. However, the EU only recognises UK passports that are less than 10 years old so you’ll need to check the issue date and not the expiry date before you travel. And although you only need three months left on your passport from arrival in the EU (working back from your passport’s expiry date), many experts advise having at least six months due to reported confusion among airport officials.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article indicated that Cuba had been placed on the State Sponsor of Terrorism list since 1 March 2011. In fact, Cuba was placed on the list on 12 January 2021.

Have you experienced any issues at border control? Please share your stories in the comments below.