Philippine passport renewal at DFA NCR West, SM City Manila: My experience
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Every once in a while, Teacher Mommy, like many hapless residents of our beautiful islands, is subjected to the discombobulating and hair-pulling ordeal of transacting with government offices in order to obtain some documentary proof that I am a law-abiding, tax-paying, SSS-contributing bona fide citizen of the Philippines. A “once in a while” came up again in January 2015 when I had to renew my passport. But instead of awaiting my date with the DFA with dread, I put on my gameface and challenged the bureaucratic gods to bring it on. You see, my faith in the government’s ability to do something right had been renewed after a recent NBI clearance application experience that was unexpectedly quick and pleasant (Adjectives I never imagined I’d use to describe a visit to a government office, but there you go).
Whether applying for a new passport or renewing an old one, the first step is to set an appointment through the Department of Foreign Affairs’ (DFA) online passport appointment system. Since the online DFA appointment system has been in place for some time now, I won’t explain how to go about accomplishing this. I had always thought that walk-in applications would not be entertained once the online appointment system took effect. I was surprised to find that this is not so. Quite a few walk-in applicants turned up on the same day as my appointment, and there was a separate queue for them. It made me wonder whether the walk-ins didn’t know about the online appointment system or they lacked meaningful access to the Internet.
For my appointment, I chose the middle of the workweek (Wednesday), as I’d heard Saturdays were the busiest days for mall-based satellite processing centers, and elected to be at the DFA NCR West office in SM City Manila by 10:00 AM. I brought tons of IDs and corresponding photocopies with me, because when it comes to presenting documents to prove your identity to the bureaucrats, the operating mantra seems to be “The more, the better.” Here’s a list of documentary requirements on the DFA’s website.
Two serpentine queues had already coiled around the fifth floor atria when I reached the mall at 10:15AM. I dashed toward the end of what I thought was a single line to the entrance of the DFA satellite office. I had been standing there for 10 minutes when I learned that I’d joined the queue for the 11:00AM applicants. See what happens when you don’t ask authorized personnel, and try to secure your spot in a queue without knowing what it’s for? Chalk one up for the lemming effect. 🙂 Anyway, I found the 10:00AM line and took my place. Waiting ahead of me must have been around 80 applicants. The line moved at an unpredictable pace. Just when you thought it hardly moved at all, the security guard would let 10 people in at once. After a half-hour of amusing myself by mentally planning the family menu for the four two weeks, I crossed the threshold of the DFA glass doors.
I handed my passport application form to have it stamped by one of two guys sitting behind a reception area. I couldn’t make out what it said, but I guess the stamp mark was a way to affirm that my appointment was legit. Next I took a seat on the final row of the waiting area for the Processing step. Seven DFA personnel were manning nine windows (you do the math), an employee-to-window ratio that is still higher than what we see at banks. The Processing step generally takes the longest time, because it is here where all documents are scrutinized and vetted (or . I have never used my married name in my official documents, passport included. This is a woman’s right as stated in Article 370 of the Philippine Civil Code, and yet, I was asked to write down my reason for choosing to use my maiden name. It doesn’t make sense that I had to provide an explanation for exercising my rights. I had half the mind to scribble “none of your effing business” but dropped the snark and complied like the obedient citizen that I sometimes am. After giving my application the go-ahead, the clerk asked if there was immediate travel on my horizon. I answered with a negative, and with one swift move that she does a hundred times day, punched holes in my passport that rendered it invalid. I was directed to the Payment section for the next step.
I took my place in the queue to pay the passport processing fee. The line to the cashier snaked through the Encoding area, taking up two entire rows of seats within. Naturally this confused every applicant who walked into the Encoding room and saw two lines moving toward opposite directions. The bewilderment lasts only for a moment, as other people in the queue readily directed the disoriented to the correct line. I paid the 1200 passport fee for Express Processing (7 working days) and proceeded to the Encoding step.
If there was ever a time I regretted not having had a facial in a long while, this was it. The Encoding step is where they take a digital photo of you that will grace your passport for five years. Don’t bother with fixing your hair, the camera will take a tight shot of your face–just your face–so every imperfection is captured for five years of shame. The Encoding is also where all information that goes into the passport is typed into the database, so when the encoder asks you to check spellings and such, pay very close attention. Lastly I was asked to sign my John Hancock digitally using a Wacom writing tablet, which I couldn’t get the hang of. Every signature I made looked ugly. The patient and good-natured DFA lady allowed me three tries, none of which helped. 🙂 So I’m stuck with an ugly-ass signature that I must try to replicate as close as possible when signing immigration forms. If you would like to pick up your passport personally from the DFA processing center, then your passport application process ends here. Otherwise, you can have your passport delivered by courier for P120. I chose the latter option.
I checked the time as I stepped out of the DFA processing center. It was 11:48AM. The whole episode was over in one hour and 33 minutes, which was a vast improvement over the three and a half hours it took to renew my passport in 2000 at the DFA Aseana Business Park. I hope this kind of quick and efficient service extends to other government agencies soon.