It’s July 2022 and I’m in London. We are in the middle of a heatwave and the city is showing it. The deck chairs in Hyde Park look like they’re on a beach. There’s a haze in the air and the skies are a flat blue-grey. Not glorious summer, just hot. Not ideal conditions for spending time in any city, let alone the biggest monster in the UK.
But I am prepared. Armed with two litres of water and almost as much suncream, I navigate my way through London’s winding horizonless streets. I’m on a mission and I’m not expecting it to go well.
In order to hike the John Muir Trail across California, I need to enter the United States. Despite having a British passport, as a US citizen I have to enter the country on a US passport. No problem, if I had one. It’s true, I did leave the US on a US passport – when I was 2 years old. But funnily enough that passport expired a long time ago. So this is my quest: to get to the US embassy and renew my passport.
Getting an Embassy Appointment
To even get to this stage has been an obstacle course of bureaucracy. Before Covid, the only way to renew a passport that expired before your 18th birthday was to bring 2 photos of you from every year of your life since the last passport expired, to prove it was still you… Regardless of having any other form of ID to prove you are you. Honestly, I’m still not sure I could produce a chain of photographic evidence like that. But luckily, that requirement seems to have been dropped post-covid. Maybe to reduce backlog? Maybe I misread the website…?
Still, now it seemed like all you needed was two forms and some current photos. I printed the passport renewal form, filled it out and got some US passport style photos taken. Then the other issue: who knows where my baby passport is to prove I ever had one? But again, miraculously, it seems like this won’t be a problem either. I printed out the lost passport form and tried to satisfy the requirements about photocopies of ID.
But the biggest miracle of all was getting an appointment at the embassy. Appointment slots are small in number, released at an undisclosed time and gone quickly. They’re found at the end of a long chain of links on the embassy website, on a page that would look at home in the 90s. I’d been checking it every now and again to try to see a pattern, and had only ever seen a couple of awkwardly afternoon appointments. Then one day, after a work trip had been cancelled and I had to decide whether to still visit a friend in London, I idly checked the page. Because, you know, it was very unlikely but what the hell.
And there were morning appointments on the dates I’d be in London. In sheer disbelief, I booked one. (Then scurried around sorting all the paperwork.) There was no email confirmation, no reminders, nothing at all to reassure me this was really happening – all I had was a screenshot of the appointment booked page. Success seemed unlikely.
Passing the American Test
But here I was in London, ready to at least give it a try and see how far I got. The US Embassy is a huge glass pyramidal building near the Thames. It’s next door to a skyscraper with a roof-top pool and is surrounded on one side by a garden with water features. It felt a lot like a modern university campus. Except for the tall white flag pole and a huge US flag flying high. This was the closest to America I could ever remember being and it made me smile.
That’s when I hit the queue. I came through the gardens, round the corner and straight into a line of bored people that snaked its way around the building and into the street. If I hadn’t been thinking, I might have simply joined the end of the queue. But, thanks to that cheeky streak of not-British in me, I followed all the way round to the front of the queue instead. At the glass entrance there was a sign: non-citizens right, citizens left. There was no queue on the left.
I walked up to the guy at the desk without a queue and told him I had an appointment, smiling like a fraud.
“Hi is this the queue to get in? I have an appointment.”
“Sure, what’s your name? Do you have some ID?”
I handed over my British passport. And he let me in. Me, getting queue skip, going through the American door. I smiled stupidly and walked in (so much that the security guy at the door said, “Someone’s smiley today.”). It was like knowing you have a rib cage, but still being surprised to actually see it on an X-ray. A human being had acknowledged that I was, in fact, American.
Getting through Security
People said to expect ‘airport-style’ security but I didn’t realise quite how literally they meant it. It was exactly like airport security, conveyor belt and all. I put my bag in and emptied the contents of my pockets into the tray: paper scraps, pencil, keys, pen knife and a couple of hazel nuts from a tree at home. Definitely not a London person. The only difference between this and airport security was the liquids. The attendant asked what was in my two bottles.
“Water,” I said.
“Drink it,” he said.
“Sure,” I took a swig from each one to prove it wasn’t poison and made a “Tada!” face like an excited puppy. Clearly they weren’t used to dealing with people having quite so much fun at the embassy.
Bag back, I was out of security and into another courtyard area, giving me strong uni campus vibes again, that led to the main door of the embassy. Before the door was a sign: passports and American services left, visas right. I looked up to see, once again, another queue out the door. So I walked around to the left…
I squeezed through the heavy glass entrance door like I was entering a library, wound through the rows of empty bollards and joined the three people in my queue. On the far side of the desk, at the front of the enormous queue, were a group of people all negotiating with an official – like you sometimes see when there’s a problem at customs. It looked like a slow and painful process for everyone. On my side, they were quickly and efficiently waving people through.
Soon it was my turn at the desk, “I have an appointment to renew my passport.”
This would be the moment. I wouldn’t be on the list. They’d tell me there had been some terrible mistake. Instead, he found me on a list, gave me a slip of paper with a number on it and directed me to the second floor. So this was really happening…!
Inside the Embassy
Past the reception desk were high ceilings and polished stone walls – sharp and square. I got in the lift – which had double doors and clearly identified as an elevator. There were two other people in the lift, a man and a woman. Somehow we all got talking.
“I’ve been living in the UK for 20 years,” said the woman, “so there wasn’t much point in keeping my passport. But my husband died and my partner now is a Texan. He’s keen to go back and live there. So I need to get my passport renewed. What about you?”
“Oh I’m just coming up,” said the man sheepishly. “My wife’s in there.”
“I’m something similar to you,” I said to the woman. “I was born in the States but I’ve been in the UK almost all my life. I’m getting a passport so I can go back to see whether I like it there.”
“You won’t like it,” she said, without missing a beat.
“Oh–” but before she could explain herself, the lift opened and we all entered the room.
The Shiny Room
For some reason, I was imagining a passport appointment being a very personal thing. I’d be left to wait in a long corridor on a small padded chair until I was eventually invited into an office. I’d sit at a desk opposite an official in a wood panelled room opposite a dim window with long curtains and a large US flag. I’d have to explain and defend my Americanism one on one.
The reality was nothing of the sort. I stepped out of the lift into a very bright, modern room – all glass and edges. Three sides of the room were floor to ceiling windows looking out over London. On the other side were a series of booths – like in a bank or a post office. Between wall and window were rows of chairs and LCD screens, giving it the air of an airport lounge.
I sat down on a chair and waited. My ticket was P48 and I waited for it to show up on the screen. Quite soon it did and I walked over to booth number 35. Inside was a man in uniform with an accent that I thought at the time was Irish but, judging by my track record, was probably actually American. I fumbled through explaining what I wanted, that I was here to renew my passport.
“I’ve never done one of these before.”
He was reassuring, “You’re in the right place ma’am.”
I handed over the paperwork and we worked through what I needed. He took my ID from me, presumably to photocopy, so I really had wasted my time trying to get good copies in advance. Then I was sent back to the seats to wait again. Over the period of about an hour, I was passed from desk to desk, doing different parts of the form, called up by numbers on the screen. It felt like the cross between being in a fancy bank and long hours sitting in Clarkes, waiting to get school shoes fitted. Like in an airport lounge (or, to be fair, school shoe fittings) you could tell some people had been stuck here for hours and wondered if they’d ever escape.
At the final desk before payment, the man in the booth looked over my paperwork, “Well Emily, it’s been forever since we’ve seen you.”
He wasn’t wrong. I told him about my triumphant plan to return to the US, then paid up and went.
Several weeks later, a rather official looking envelope arrived on my door mat. Inside, against all the odds, was a small, navy blue booklet with gold embossed writing. PASSPORT: United States of America. It was real. I am American. And I’m going to California.
Fed up of my sporadic use of social media? Then you need to be in the Adventure Squad! More like a chat with a cuppa and as far from doomscrolling as possible. Or while you’re here, have a read of some of my other mountain adventures in walking, mountaineering and winter. If you’re new to the blog (hello!) you might want to start here first. I’m a female adventurer based in the UK.