Digital Passport on Smartphone?

Are Smartphones the New Requirement for International Travel?

Digital Passport on Phone or just Covid Record? the NHS

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I just helped my grandmother get ready for a plane trip to the U.K.  I am frankly worried when she has to return home next month. Most of the documents she needed to board the airplane and clear immigration got stored on her phone. We convinced her to carry a new smartphone instead of an old flip phone. But it took a lot of leg work and she said that a digital passport on a smartphone is just for nerds! I am not sure that she will be able to complete the document trail to get home! Chris, Mill Valley

Dear Chris:  I fully understand your question as my husband and I recently took a trip to Canada and experienced similar issues. We could print the boarding passes anywhere, but most of the other documentation had to reside on our smartphones. The traveler information/customs forms were initiated through emails and accessed by barcodes.  I think readers may be interested in the details, so I am going to get into the weeds of trip taking.

To travel internationally, say to the UK or Canada, you must show proof of a negative Covid test, often a PCR. For Canada, this test must be scheduled no sooner than 72 hours in advance of travel, so it involves an extensive search of available and fast testing sites. You probably had to help your Grandmother find a similar testing site. Scheduling both testing and  vaccination sites online became one of the first digital divides of Covid.   

Once you  secure a testing site, and prayers that it goes well, you need an email address or text for receiving the outcome. That might have been an electronic hurdle for your grandmother, but I hope not. 

Digital Declarations:

Now many countries, including the UK and Canda, require a digital declaration or a  passenger location form to enter. Canada asks that the named traveler set up an online account with a password, and then populate it prior to travel with the Covid test results, an image of the passport, and flight information. This means that your grandmother must be conversant not only with digital email, but also with taking and forwarding jpegs, and remembering those pesky passwords! 

These forms get reviewed by the authorities before you enter the country,  but to clear immigration at the airport the details will need to be retrieved by a barcode, or completely re-entered  into a machine. That’s where it could get tricky for Grandma if she tries to  retrieve them on her phone. Hopefully there will be staff standing by to help her.  By the way, if you remind her to  save these as images then she will not need to face the added complexity of  accessing WiFi at the airport. I find that lots of people don’t understand the differences when they travel of keeping the phone on local cellular service, using roaming, or jumping on local WiFi. The WiFi can unwittingly open up security vulnerabilities. 

Leaning on Others:

During my recent trip, I had a chat with the U.S. customs/immigration official who cleared my return. He agreed that smartphones were becoming as necessary as passports for international travelers. He anticipated that people who were less familiar with the technology like your Grandma would lean on a family member or aide to help them.  In a similar vein, my best friends travels with her spouse who is confined to a wheelchair. Because the disability network is incomplete and the travel accommodations for a wheelchair user are spotty she continually jumps in and does the heavy lifting (literally).  More and more younger people, like you, will need to do the digital lifting for those who are not so tech savvy.

Using phones for travel documentation has been growing for some time beginning with the online boarding pass. However, Covid greatly accelerated the trend because of the need for additional documentation. Several columns back @dearsmartphone had a discussion of the pros and cons of real-time online Covid passes. In this U.K. article there is a thoughtful discussion of whether the National Health Service Covid passport will induce digital creep and further surveillance. 

 And, on that topic, if your Grandma is using her new  smartphone in the UK this month, she probably has the GPS/location settings turned on. Through  that local authorities can follow her path and know if she comes in contact with any Covid-infected people. She will also have to figure out how to get a Covid test on short notice in the UK before she hops on her flight back home. Hopefully, by then, she will become a ‘digital passport smartphone’ pro user or find a willing accomplice.

Phones Don’t Work in Emergency

The power went out….the phone line went down….what next?

A log between the Marin County Sheriff and a user on Facebook, warning the user to not call 911 for updates on the cell phone outage. Doing so jeopardizes the entire emergency network.
Marin County Sheriff’s Office log on Facebook. KCBS Radio. Nov. 9, 2021

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My parent’s neighbor has an older phone that plugs into the wall. She lost power when the phone lines went down last month and is worried now that phones don’t work in an emergency. I have a cell phone and during that outage the calls got jammed. But we used a computer and Nextdoor to figure out what was going on.  How can I help this neighbor get better prepared next time? Alix, Belvedere

Dear Alix: It’s great that you are thinking forward and helping neighbors! Some communities have a watch list for those in need,  particularly useful when phones won’t work in an emergency and there’s a need to evacuate. Hopefully that is not foreseeable.

For now,  investigate whether her old style  phone is hard wired into the wall, or is a more modern device that plugs into a wall jack with Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP). Telzio says, looks-wise, VOIP phones and analog phones are indistinguishable to the average person and provide the same functionality.

People with VOIP phones think they are safe because they plug into a wall jack. But they are often in triple jeopardy in an emergency. These phones need electricity, fresh batteries, and wireless to work. Until recently, the analog old style hard-wired corded phones had ~ 98.9% reliability. There was a resilient network of copper cables that transmitted voice calls outside the home and office. But today, we send and receive so much more- zoom, video games, banking, shopping, movies.  To deliver that bandwidth most of the  copper cable has been replaced with wireless transmission, fiber optic cable, and satellite service. Telcos sometimes use these too between their own trunk lines and switching offices.

That is all good- until it is not. In an emergency, say an earthquake or severe wind storm, the old phone system called POTS (plain old telephone service) delivered when electricity failed. Today,  the price we pay  for speedy bandwidth is occasional inconsistency due to the interdependence of phones and electrical service. It’s an issue recognized by the FCC and lawmakers. After the 2019 fires, a State Bill was introduced to make sure that wireless companies, Comcast, AT&T, et al. provide 72 hours of backup electrical service at their cell towers.


It’s not just emergencies. The California Office of Emergency Services reports that, on average, there are 15 outages and 255 hours of downtown a month. Most of these don’t create a public disturbance until they go on for extended periods, or in extreme cases, they immobilize calls to ‘911’.  

There appears to have been a cascade like effect during the incident you mention. The damaged cable was connected to a bigger line (called a trunk) and then caused it to fail. People at home tried to use their phones to get Internet service, say as a hotspot. People on the  Internet used their computers to make voice calls, say over Skype. We were all transmitting over a reduced bandwidth of fiber optics and cell towers until eventually there was ‘radio silence.’

Scraping By:

As you mention those who could still get Internet service turned to social media to find out what was going on. The local newspaper, The Ark reports, that a San Francisco  company called “Downdetector” (Parent company Ookla in Seattle, Wa.) was scraping these posts to tabulate the severity of the outage for Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T! It’s ironic that they were using the Internet to gather customer data!

During the phone outage others called into the local police stations or to 911. That began to overwhelm the emergency service lines and compound the problem. Marin has become sort of a poster child on social media for its inappropriate use of 911 calls that day (see image).  It’s not clear that your neighbor’s analog phone would have had greater priority reaching 911 once transmissions got overloaded.

On a personal level, one of the lessons I learned after the 2019 fires was that while many lost electricity for days, there was no PG&E outage just a few miles away in the City. In light of my transportation background, my advice is to  keep your car topped off with a full tank. Alternatively, keep  your electric car on alert with a full charge so you can also use it to power up your home! Use the car radio to listen for updates and when it sounds safe, seek higher ground. The key is figuring out what communities have working electricity. While the electronic tolling on the bridges should be free that day (!) there is real risk from traffic backups and traffic signal outages.

Safe to Bike Post Covid?

A sign that says bikes can use full lane, but the street is full of potholes and construction debris. This is a photo from Cambridge, Mass.
Safe to Bike Post Covid? Image Credit: DearSmartphone

Dear Ms. Smartphone, I was getting my bike fixed, and they showed me a copy of the op-ed you wrote during Covid about commuters and ebikes. I know there are rules about driving and bikes- what about ebikes and phones?! Do you still think it is safe to bike post Covid? I am worried about taking my bike on the road these days because the drivers are running through stop signs and red lights, etc. They also seem to be on their phones more. Brian, Corte Madera

Dear Brian: Accident data reveals that we are at greater risk even though people are driving less. There is evidence that drivers are indeed running through stop signs and red lights more. And with fewer cars on the road, vehicle speeds have increased. You might have less worry about phones- drivers in cars have already reached peak talk!

But, to answer your question, are we safe to bike post-Covid? The dangers you mention are less so about phones, and more so about a cultural shift in how we treat driving and what we do when we get behind the wheel. 


The National Highway Safety Institute gathers statistics on fatal and severe accidents from  trauma centers. These are where ambulance drivers deliver severely injured patients. What they observed in 2020 at the height of Covid is somewhat startling.  Nearly two thirds of drivers tested positive for at least one active drug, including alcohol, marijuana, or opioids. Prior to Covid, about half of the drivers (50%) tested positive for alcohol or drugs but during Covid all substance use increased. The percentage with THC in their bloodstream doubled.  Interestingly, pedestrians and motorcycle drivers had similar levels. There was not enough data on bike riders.

My takeaway is that these accidents on the road are not  “accidents” as much as  “impairments”.

When it comes to assessing phones and driver error, researchers continue to lack adequate data. That’s because people don’t end up in a trauma center clutching their mobile phones. The phones usually fly out the windshield or lie under the seat. Unless law enforcement officials requisition phone or text logs from the telecom company and since that is seldom done, there is no reliable way to measure distraction rates from phones.  That said, key loggers may begin to tell a different story.


Sadly, we know that traveling at 55 mph, it takes about five seconds to stop the vehicle, or a football field length. Answering a text while driving takes attention off the road for roughly the same period. Yet we can’t quantify the rate of cell phone caused accidents. And, these days, distraction in the car takes new directions- like fumbling with the complex navigation system, thumbing knobs  up and down to tune the speakers, and, on some cars, glancing at the oversized digital screen in the middle for the blind spot cameras. 

Since you are on a bike and hopefully will continue to be, what can you personally do to stay safe? The obvious ones are to wear a helmet and tuck your phone out of sight. It’s not illegal to use a phone while riding but it defies common sense. It’s an irony that when you ask bikers why they bring their phones along with them they answer, “in case something happens.” Hopefully never.


With that in mind, at this time of the year when it gets dark early, the majority of  bike accidents take place in late afternoon and after dark. So, it would be a good idea to limit your ride during these hours, or travel them on a grade- divided  path.  Of course, that could limit the usefulness of an e-bike for commute trips. Meanwhile, remember that motorcycle drivers and pedestrians out there are also impaired, so tread cautiously.

In closing, a nod to humility. While smartphones seem to be at the core of so many modern issues and problems, here they are not the driver.