Knocked up abroad: applying for a baby’s passport

baby passportAs my new baby girl was born in a foreign country, getting a passport was a necessity for her to even return home to America. Though Vera was born in Turkey, she’s an American citizen by virtue of her parents’ citizenship and entitled to a US passport. For Americans born outside the country, the US consulate issues a Report of Birth Abroad that acts as an official birth certificate and proof of US citizenship. After a trip to the US to visit family and a vacation in Malta, Vera’s been in three countries before she reached three months of age and is rapidly racking up passport stamps.

As soon as we brought the baby home from the hospital, the first order of business on the road to getting her baby passport was getting her Turkish birth certificate. While not required by the US consulate, it is necessary in order to get her residence permit, required for anyone staying longer in Turkey than the 90-day tourist visa. I learned that I could obtain this at my local registry office with a letter stating that I had given birth at the American Hospital (this is provided in both Turkish and English by the hospital). I set out with my one-week old baby in her stroller, sleeping peacefully, assuming that the office would be a short walk from our apartment given the local address. An hour later, I had walked as far as one of Istanbul’s busy highways, dripping sweat, in tears, and definitely lost. Google Maps is generally a useful tool for many city addresses, but for some parts of Istanbul, you may as well be mapping a jungle. I enlisted the help of some Turkish friends who found a satellite image of the office online and emailed it to me. In true Turkish fashion, the registry office is actually two streets away from the mailing address and no one in the area can give you an exact street number when you are frantically seeking directions.When we finally got to the registry office, I took a number, left my stroller downstairs (in Turkey, you can trust that no one will steal it, but I did take the baby out first) and went in search of the counter for birth certificates. Naturally, Vera chose the moment I was filling out a form to launch into her first meltdown. As I struggled to write down my contact information and covertly feed her, I was ushered behind the counter and installed at a random guy’s desk, with an old Turkish lady practically forcing me to sit down and nurse the baby. Once the baby was content, I returned to the birth certificate lady but was met with a new obstacle in the form of a major language barrier. Fortunately, another man waiting at the registry office was able to translate for me – I would need to come back with all of our passports, residence permits, and marriage certificate from the US. The next day I returned armed with every possible bit of documentation and while every woman in the office gathered around Vera, exclaiming over her cuteness and wondering why the crazy foreigner was taking her baby out in public so early, I provided information for the birth certificate. I needed more translation help, as you are asked questions about your education level and religion (Islam is the default in Turkey, so many non-religious Turks are still considered Muslim even if they are non-practicing), which I couldn’t answer in Turkish but there is generally always someone around who can speak English. A few more rubber stamps and Maşallahs and I had her birth certificate.

Next step was a passport photo, a seemingly easy task that is particularly challenging the younger the baby you have. The US State Department requires that the baby look at the camera with eyes open, and that the photo be taken with a white background and nothing in the photo such as your hand or a baby seat. Newborns tend to sleep a lot and their vision is quite hazy, so getting them to be alert and somewhat focused on something is easier said than done. While some parents might opt to take the photo themselves, I decided to go to a professional rather than try to mess with the correct measurements and angles myself. One afternoon when Vera was barely two weeks old, I waited until she seemed awake and took her down the street in her carrier. The five-minute walk immediately put her back to sleep, so the photographer and I tried everything we could think of to wake her and get her attention. Somehow a half hour of tickling and a Turkish man yelling “kız bebek!” (baby girl) only made her sleep more deeply. Finally, we managed to get the photo you see above, which will remain her passport photo and primary means of identification until she’s five years old. Though some online information led me to believe they may not accept the picture due to her open mouth, the US consulate approved it for use.

Passport photo in hand at last, we made an appointment with the US consulate to apply for her US passport and Report of Birth Abroad, which will serve as her official birth certificate. The paperwork for this report turned out to be slightly more complex than anticipated, as it requires precise dates of presence both in the United States and abroad for each parent. If you keep good records, this could be simple and straightforward. As I’ve traveled frequently for the past decade and have been living in Istanbul for over a year, this took a lot of time to estimate using passport stamps, old travel confirmations in my email, photo date stamps, and anything else that could give me an idea of dates I spent outside of America. You are also required to provide documentation of the parents’ citizenship (my husband is Russian-born, so we needed the approximate date and place of naturalization), marriage (if applicable, it’s a whole other can of worms if the parents are not married), and dissolution of any previous marriages, which can result in some frantic emails to friends back home and calls to US registry offices if you don’t travel with all your paperwork.

The US consulate in Istanbul is far from the city center (you can take Metro to İTÜ Ayazağa and then a quick taxi ride) and resembles a fortress on a hill, with American-style maximum security. Most places in Istanbul with metal detectors, including the entrance to the airport, allowed me to skip security while pregnant (I got a cursory pat down at the airport) and often with the baby, and often ignore metal objects that cause the detectors to beep. At the consulate, I forgot to remove my camera from my purse and was yelled at when I attempted to remove it myself (“Ma’am! Step away from the bag!”). After clearing security, we waited in the US Citizen’s Services room to present the baby and our paperwork. There was another couple waiting with their month-old baby which turned out to be their sixth child, and they were fairly blasé about the fact that they had come from Iraq to have the baby in Istanbul (we guessed military family) and planned to return home to the US only two weeks after applying for the passport. Presenting our own paperwork turned out to be easier than expected, as they only needed to see that we had in fact lived in the US before, but it’s a good idea to have all of your travel dates on hand in case you are questioned. Finally, we paid our $205 for the report and passport, and had them both delivered to our home one week later (compare that to the weeks it usually takes to get a passport at home!).

We planned our first trip out of Turkey for when Vera would be six weeks old, which was just enough time to get all of our paperwork in order and feel competent enough as parents to travel. She will receive her Turkish residency next month after she is four months old. When we went through passport control leaving Istanbul, there was some confusion as she had no visa or residence permit and we were prepared to pay a fee to leave the country, but we were eventually allowed to pass through free and only purchase a tourist visa when we re-entered Turkey that will cover her until her residency is established. Now the adventure would really begin: actually traveling with a baby.

Stay tuned for tips on traveling with a baby and destination guides for foreign travel with a baby. Waiting for baby to arrive? Check out past Knocked Up Abroad articles on traveling while pregnant and what to expect when you’re expecting in Turkey.

Knocked up abroad: baby shopping in a foreign country

baby shopping
Knocked up abroad has been on a bit of a hiatus as my travel schedule has slowed and the due date has sped up. Feel free to catch up with posts on pregnancy travel, Turkish superstitions, medical care, and naming children.

I’m into the final month of my pregnancy in Istanbul and that means the countdown is on to get stocked up with wee tiny baby things, garishly colored toys and furniture, and gadgets I never knew I would need. If you’ve ever been baby shopping, either for yourself or for a gift, you know it can be intimidating. Specialty boutiques and megastores are overrun with all sorts of contraptions and devices, in many varieties and brands, organized in ways that are overwhelming to all but the most seasoned of parents. Now try doing this shopping in a foreign country, in another language, with very limited space, and a semi-nomadic expat lifestyle and you’ll understand why I’ve put it off until, as the Turks say, the egg is at the door.

My “home” is in Brooklyn, New York, but I’ve spent less than a week there in the past 14 months. My current home in Istanbul is very small but fully furnished and outfitted with many storage cabinets (Turks dislike visible clutter) but little floor space. My husband and I have been heresince last April on an open-ended work assignment with no end date in sight. We may end this year back in Brooklyn, still in Istanbul, or in another city and country altogether. Given our situation, I’m trying to accumulate as little as possible and try to cut through the “must-have” baby lists to the bare essentials and stuff I won’t mind leaving behind in six months.

%Gallery-126823%In many ways, Turkey is a great place to have a baby, as Turks adore children and are happy to cater to them (someone should commission a study on the correlation between Mediterranean countries and baby-craziness, there must be something in the olive oil). Most malls have an area if not a whole floor of stores dedicated to kids, including local chains like Joker and E-Bebek (that’s e-baby), as well as many branches of UK chain Mothercare. While they all carry most of the same brands as in America and western Europe, the websites and store info is generally in Turkish, meaning a lot of time spent with a dictionary and translation site when researching products. Also unfortunate is the usual Turkish sales approach of hovering. Generally when you walk into a store in Istanbul, a sales person marches up to you, says “hoş geldiniz” (Turkish for welcome) and then proceeds to silently follow you around the store until you ask a question or flee the shop in paranoia (I usually flee in search of a shop with sales help who can’t be bothered to look up from their texting). This is the practice in nearly every store other than touristy carpet shops, and Turkish friends will tell me they are expecting me to take the lead and tell them my needs or tell them to buzz off. I found this hard to do in baby stores and instead tried to do much of my browsing online so I was prepared to purchase in stores.

The big ticket item on my list (as with many other expecting parents) is a stroller. I wanted something that could work from birth to toddlerhood, that could serve as a sleeping bassinet for the first few months (no room for a crib now) and be versatile enough to travel the world. Earlier in the pregnancy we contemplated a shopping trip to somewhere relatively nearby like Amsterdam or Barcelona where they must sell the chicest and most practical of European city strollers, but ended up deciding to buy something available in Istanbul that we could get parts and service for nearly anywhere in the world. We don’t own a car in either Istanbul or New York (in fact, I’m in possession of a soon-to-expire learner’s permit), but we got a car seat from a Turkish colleague to use on taxi rides and future road trips that can fit onto many strollers with an adapter. For Istanbul, the stroller needed to be tough enough to handle many hills, uneven sidewalks and cobblestone streets, but be light enough to tote up New York subway stairs and navigate narrow supermarket aisles. After researching dozens of strollers, spending many soul-destroying hours watching demo and review videos online, and testing a few out in person, I have determined the Perfect Stroller does not exist. Since I have no nursery to decorate and few other things to buy, I was able to splash out on a tricked-out Almost Perfect Stroller (I won’t name brands until I have a chance to test drive, but it’s one you will see in most yuppie coffee shops around the world) and will buy something cheap and lightweight when I am back in a city without metro station elevators and helpful Turks.

After the stroller was chosen, there are a few other items necessary to many new parents and designed well for travelers. As is common in many modern Istanbul apartments, we have no bathtub (Turks see them as unclean, and even the traditional hamam bath is more about the steaming than soaking) and tiny sinks in our bathroom and kitchen. I was resigned to buying a big plastic tub that I would eventually leave behind, but then found this cool device by American design company Puj. It’s essentially a glorified piece of foam that folds into a seat you can wedge into the sink, but unfolds flat and can be hung on a wall to dry. I imagine I can also pack it in the bottom of a suitcase for travel. One item on my list for my next US visit is the Nest from Phil&Teds: a rather ingenius travel carrier that can carry all the gear and then work as a bed or cot at night. Our parents would say a suitcase and pillow could serve the same purpose, but this meets more safety standards than a Samsonite and fits in the overhead bin too. Finally, we also wanted a baby carrier to go hands-free and stroller-less when traveling. There are upteen options out there, and we ended up with a Sleepy Wrap (another glorified bit of fabric with a nice label on it but several friends swear by it) purchased at a terrific speciality shop in Singapore. Fun fact: the Turkish word for baby carrier is kanguru.

The most fun things to shop for are, of course, baby clothes. Few people can resist tiny t-shirts, onesies, and dresses, and most parents can expect to receive many items as gifts. I stocked up on the basics at Mothercare and other clothing stores (we do have Baby Gap and even Baby Zara in Turkey), but discovered a treasure trove of baby shops recently in Eminönü, a crowded shopping area between the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market. In these local shops, I found a range of clothes from the adorable to the downright odd, some with Turkish phrases and many more with strange “Turk-lish.” Check out the gallery above for some of the best.

Now that my apartment is filling up with baby things, I feel just about ready for my due date on July 20 without feeling weighed down by useless gadgets. Any other expat or frequent traveler parents out there who can recommend products? Feel free to leave them in comments below.

Stay tuned for a final pre-birth Knocked up abroad (pending baby’s cooperation, but they say first babies are usually late) on Turkish vs. American attitudes toward babies and pregnant women. Until then, catch up on the other posts here.