American citizens need a passport to travel to most international destinations. Since 2009, a US passport or US passport card is even necessary to travel to and from Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean. American citizens do not need a passport to travel to US territories such as Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and Guam.
The rules can be different for children or for families traveling on a cruise. For cruises that begin and end at the same US port but visit ports of call in Bermuda, Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean, passengers can re-enter the US with just a valid driver’s license and birth certificate. (Still, it is advisable to carry a passport regardless of this loophole, in case an emergency were to arise at a non-US port that would require returning to the US by air.) Children under age 16 returning to the US by land or sea from these countries need just a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship.
Getting a US passport or a US passport card is straightforward if you have all the required documentation. The application process generally takes about four to six weeks, but it can take longer during busy periods. If you need your passport within two months, the State Department recommends opting for the expedited service for an additional $60 plus delivery costs. With the expedited service, you can expect to receive your new passport in two to three weeks.
Applying for a US Passport for the First Time
If this is your first passport, you must apply in person at one of the 7,000 passport acceptance facilities. The nearest facility is likely to be close to where you live in a local town hall, post office, public library, or county clerk’s office. Bring the following items with you:
- Form DS-11, which can be downloaded from the State Department web site
- Certified birth certificate or other proof of US citizenship
- Official photo ID, such as a valid driver’s license or a military ID
- Two passport-size photos
- Fees: $110 for adults; $80 for children under 16; plus $25 per person in execution fees
The US Passport Card has been in production since July 14, 2008, and allows travelers to re-enter the United States by land or sea when traveling from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. The application process is the same as that of a passport, and the cards are valid for the same duration (five years for children under 16, 10 years for adults) but the fees for these wallet-sized cards are significantly lower. Fees are $30 for adults and $15 for children, making the passport card a viable option for families that don’t often travel far from home.
Whether applying for a first passport or renewing an expired one, a minor must apply in person with both parents or legal guardians present. Both adults must sign the application form of a minor under 16. The certified birth certificate must show both parents’ names or, in the case of legal guardians, proof of the relationship. If the minor does not have a photo ID, the parents or guardians must show proof of citizenship and identity and then vouch for the child.
Renewing an American Passport
To renew a US passport, the process is generally easier and cheaper than for first-time applications. You can renew by mail, as long as your expired passport is not damaged, was issued no more than 15 years ago, was issued with your current name and you were at least 16 when you got it. You’ll need:
- Form DS-82. You can download it from the State Department web site, fill it out, and sign it.
- Your most recent passport
- Two passport-size photos
- Fees: $110 for adults; $80 for children under age 16; no execution fee
Note that if your most recent passport is damaged, or was issued more than 15 years ago, or your name as changed, or you were under 16 when you got it, you must follow the process for first-timers.
Last update: Feb. 24, 2014