U.S. Customs confiscated her passport. How does she get it back?

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By Christopher Elliott

When a U.S. Customs agent confiscates Adriana Cordero’s passport, she tries to get it back. But government bureaucracy is standing between her and her ID.

Customs confiscated my passport

Last year, U.S. Customs confiscated my passport in Montreal as I was returning to the United States. The reason the officer gave me was that it had been reported as “lost or stolen.” It was neither because I was holding it in my hands! 

What I had reported as “lost or stolen” was my passport card. I had applied for both a passport and passport card. I received the passport but never received the card. I reported the card as missing, and in time received a replacement. 

When I got home, I started to call and email the State Department about my confiscated passport. There is no way to speak to a human. The phone recording tells you to go to the website, and the website gives that same number to call for help. There are no options on the website, forms, or phone tree for my particular situation. 

Finally, I filled out a complaint form on their website, and that yielded a phone call. A representative gave me an address to send a letter with documentation about my situation with regards to my confiscated passport. That was three months ago, and I have no way to contact anyone to follow up.

I’ve spent hours trying to figure out how to fix this. I know passports are taking longer than usual, but I’m uncomfortable not having my legit passport in hand. Can you help me? — Adriana Cordero, Washington, D.C.


The State Department and U.S. Customs really got its wires crossed with your missing passport card. You reported a missing passport card, but the government thought you had lost your passport. 

I had no idea that U.S. Customs would confiscate a passport reported as lost or stolen, but that makes sense. What makes less sense is that the State Department didn’t return your passport when you pointed out the mistake.

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The passport system is a vast bureaucracy that even experienced travelers don’t fully understand. And you are absolutely right about the phone numbers and websites — that reflects my experience and that of most other travelers. The problem with the system is that it can’t identify serious errors or assign a level of urgency to them. The government had taken your passport — and kept it — for several months by the time you contacted me. So, apart from visiting Canada and Mexico (which your passport card gives you access to), you were pretty much confined to the country. (Here’s what you need to know before you book your next cruise.)

Here’s the outcome of the lost passport card and the confiscated passport case

There was no way you could have avoided this problem. While you were trying to fix this problem, you kept a flawless paper trail, which you forwarded to me. You used almost all the principles of the Elliott Method.

I shared the information with my State Department contact. It took some time, but you finally received a new passport.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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