The new blue-black British passport has had a bumpy ride since it was introduced in 2020. You certainly can’t expect to wave it airily at officials and assume they will be impressed that His Majesty Requests and Requires them to let you pass without hindrance.
Indeed, the EU withdrawal agreement means it risks getting you stuck in long queues when you arrive in a member state – especially if you land at an airport at the same time as several other flights from the UK.
And last year it took a hit on the Henley Index, which measures the “power” of different national passports according to how many countries they let you visit visa-free. Britain dropped to 13th place, behind countries such as Singapore, Spain and Luxembourg.
Since then, things have improved. The latest report from Henley puts it joint sixth, which is equal with France, Ireland and Portugal, but well short of its ranking in 2010, when it was the most powerful passport on Earth. But at least things seem to be moving in the right direction.
Such ups and downs are largely part of the fallout from Brexit and the terms under which it is negotiated. But there is one problem that we can’t blame on that: the bureaucratic delays and a huge backlog at the Passport Office.
The turnaround time to renew the old burgundy EU passport used to be just two to three weeks in 2019. Now you need to allow up to 10. And according to an investigation published by the National Audit Office in December, last year 5 per cent of applicants – amounting to some 360,000 people – had to wait even longer than this.
True, the pressure has eased a little since demand peaked last spring. That was when a rush of renewal applications anticipating the end of Covid restrictions, combined with a shortage of staff to deal with them, caused chaos and led to some readers having to cancel their travel plans.
But while the Passport Office has had nearly a year to get its act together again, it is still warning applicants to allow the full 10 weeks for a renewal to be processed. And now it is putting the prices up. On February 2, the fee for a standard online application for adults made from within the UK will rise from £75.50 to £82.50, while the cost of postal applications will increase from £85 to £93.
Meanwhile, those of us who can’t be without our passport for that long – and I imagine there are many – are forced to pay even more for one of the two fast-track services on offer (gov.uk/get-a-passport-urgently). The cost of these is also going up. The Fast Track service rises from £142 to £155 and the online premium service from £177 to £193.50.
These increases, according to the Passport Office, will “help enable the government to continue improving its services”. In my view, it is shocking that what used to be a straightforward and reliable service has deteriorated in this way. And it is frankly scandalous that those who need an efficient turnaround are being forced to pay through the nose in order to use it.
So, if your passport is nearing its expiry date, what should you do? Is it worth applying to renew it now before the cost increases? Or – for the sake of saving a few pounds – do you risk becoming part of a rush that will only extend the already long waiting times to renew and issue passports?
The Passport Office has not changed its advice on processing times, but there is a risk that a surge in applications to beat the price rise will put more pressure on the system. That will catch you either way – apply later in February or March and the bulge will still be in the system. So, if you need to renew in the next few months, it is best to get on with it and apply before the price goes up – as long as you can do without your passport for up to 10 weeks.