The Big Change in Passport Requirements
Before January 2007, US citizens were able to take trips to Canada, Mexico, and many countries in the Caribbean without needing passports. Birth certificates and photo id were sufficient.
Passport ID is now required to re-enter the US, as part of a "Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative" that the US is implementing for border security. (Read more at the US State Dept. site.)
For travel to Canada, see updates for Canada Passport Requirements in general, and Passport Requirements for Kids. For Mexico, see updates for general travel, and see also "Does my child need a passport to travel to Mexico?"
Basically -- at time of writing-- all US citizens travelling by air outside the US need to present a passport in order to re-enter the US. There are some exceptions for children, however; check the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative for latest updates. At time of writing: "U.S. and Canadian citizen children under age 16 arriving by land or sea from contiguous territory may also present an original or copy of his or her birth certificate, a Consular Report of Birth Abroad, a Naturalization Certificate, or a Canadian Citizenship Card."
Also of interest to families: groups of "U.S. and Canadian citizen children under age 19 arriving by land or sea from contiguous territory and traveling with a school group, religious group, social or cultural organization, or sports team, may also present an original or copy of his or her birth certificate, a Consular Report of Birth Abroad, a Naturalization Certificate, or a Canadian Citizenship Card", but the group should be prepared with extra paperwork. Read more.
An alternative form of identification can be used in some circumstances: a wallet-sized and lower-priced Passport Card can be used for travel by land and sea. Also, several states and Canadian provinces issue Enhanced Drivers Licenses that can by used for crossing the border by land or sea.
In addition, several "Trusted Traveler Programs" such as NEXUS can speed up your cross-border travel, with special fast-access lanes at land crossings and at admission booths at airports; these require a special application process.
Passport requirements and other document regulations continue to change-- always check for updates!
Getting Your Passports: Points to Note, for Family Travelers
Using normal procedures, getting a new passport in the U.S. has typically taken up to six weeks. A number of Expedited Services are available, but at a price.
Note too that for some types of travel you need to have your documents in hand far in advance of the actual departure date. Some cruise lines, for example, require passport numbers at least 75 days prior to travel dates.
Also, be aware that many countries require that passports be valid for, say, six months after date of entry. So check your expiry dates carefully.
Where to Apply
You can apply at over a dozen Passport Agencies; in addition, over 7000 public places accept applications. Find the nearest location by entering your zip code at the Passport Acceptance Facility Search Page at the US Department of State site. (Renewals may be done by mail if certain conditions are met.)
Note: when filling in your form, remember that it must be signed in the presence of a Passport Acceptance Agent.
Special Requirements, When Applying for Children
When applying for a passport for kids under age 16, personal appearances are required by both parents, and by the child, and you'll need to show several types of documents.
For Minors under 16*:
- both parents or the child's legal guardian(s) must appear, and each minor child applying must appear as well, to submit the form
- for documents, you need to show evidence of the child's U.S. citizenship, and also evidence of the child's relationship to parents/guardians, and parental identification as well. Check which documents are acceptable.
- If only one parent can appear, that parent must submit extra document, such as the second parent's notarized written statement, or evidence of sole authority to apply.
Single parents may face extra challenges when applying for a child's passport. See Passport Rules Every Single Parent Must Know, at About.com's Single Parents site, for details about the application process.
You'll need to add to your vacation budget to get the required passports: $135 for each adult, and $105 for each child under 16. (Check for updates).
Watch Out For Expiry!
Unlike passports for adults -- which are good for 10 years-- passports issued to kids under 16 expire in five years.
Also, be aware that some countries require a passport to be valid for 6 months past your travel dates. So double-check that expiry date!
As noted above, if only one parent can appear when applying for the child's passport, certain procedures need to be followed: be sure to read them carefully, on the Online Application Form for a US Passport form.
USVI and Puerto Rico
The new requirements do not affect travel between the United States and its territories, such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
- Instructions about Obtaining at Passport, at the US Dept. of State site
- List of entry documents required by other countries
*Always check web sites for updates!
Photo courtesy of James Martin, About.com Guide for Europe for Visitors.