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updated 6/1/2009 9:52:38 AM ET 2009-06-01T13:52:38

Traveling abroad? Your passport is the most important document on your packing list; protect it, and it will protect you. Having your passport lost or stolen could turn your otherwise flawless trip into a potential disaster. Read on for ideas about how to protect your passport — and tips for what to do if it's lost or stolen while you're traveling abroad.

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Pre-trip planning
Before you leave home, make two copies of your passport identification page. Leave one copy at home with friends or relatives and carry the other with you in a separate place from your passport. It's also a good idea to bring along two or three passport photos; these should be identical 2 inch x 2 inch photographs taken within the last six months, featuring a front view of your face on a white background. Be sure you also have another form of photo ID and a copy of your birth certificate (or another document to prove your citizenship). If your passport is lost or stolen, having these will speed up the replacement process.

Also, if you plan to be abroad for more than two weeks, you may want to register with the U.S. embassy in the country you are visiting. For more information, see Travel Warnings and Advisories.

Safeguard your passport
Although you may not realize it, a U.S. passport is a hot commodity. To avoid being a target of crime, don't be too conspicuous with it. Not only do you risk having the passport stolen, but your other identification, credit cards and money as well. Take it out only when you need to provide it to officials. At all other times keep it on your person.

There are several travel accessories that can help keep your personal items safe. Companies like Magellan's and TravelSmith offer money belts that can be worn around your waist, slipped around your neck or stashed away in a pants leg. For the extremely conscientious, there are even hydro-safe wallets so you can take your passport swimming with you!

Do not leave your passport in checked luggage (but do leave a photocopy of it in your luggage), a handbag or an exposed pocket. If possible, leave your passport in a hotel safe, not in an empty hotel room. One person should never carry all the passports for an entire group. Never lend your passport to anyone, use it as collateral or ask someone to hold it for you.

How to replace a lost or stolen passport
As soon as you realize your passport is missing, contact the nearest police authorities, U.S. embassy or consulate. You will be asked to fill out a DS-11 form, which is the standard passport application form. You are not required to know the passport number or issuance date to apply for a new passport.

If the passport is still valid, you must also complete the DS-64 form to report the lost or stolen passport. You be asked to report how, where and when you lost your current passport, what you did to recover it, and what the end result was. This form must be submitted with the DS-11 application. Both of these forms can be downloaded and printed from the State Department Web site.

In emergencies, you may contact the National Passport Information Center (NPIC) for support. Call (877) 487-2778 to reach an operator Monday through Friday from 8 a.m until 10 p.m. ET; an automated system is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you want to find out the status of an application, you can now check online.

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