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Passport Information

The rules for travel to the U.S. from some countries have changed in recent years. As a result of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, the government launched the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), which in almost all cases requires passports for travelers entering the country from any non-U.S. destination, including the places that used to be exempt.

Requirements for Americans

  • All U.S. citizens returning to the country by air are required to have a U.S. passport. Prior to January 2007, a driver’s license or birth certificate would work for Americans returning home from some countries in the Western Hemisphere.
  • As of June 2009, all U.S. citizens returning from Bermuda, Canada, the Caribbean region or Mexico are required to present a passport or a newer, less-expensive alternative, the passport card (described below). Enhanced driver’s licenses, issued by some states, also are acceptable substitutes for a passport.
  • U.S. citizens need a valid photo ID but not a passport when returning home from a U.S. territory, such as Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands. This is unchanged.

Exceptions

  • In some circumstances, Immigration also accepts the cards issued by so-called trusted traveler programs, which were created to provide expedited Customs and Immigration clearance for prescreened travelers who are considered a low risk to U.S. security. In some cases, the cards can substitute for a passport, as well, but not always.
    The programs carry acronyms like NEXUS, SENTRI and FAST. For air trips, Americans can use the NEXUS card as a passport substitute at a NEXUS kiosk when departing from a designated Canadian airport. For entry by land or sea, all three cards are accepted for entry into the U.S.

  • For land and sea entries, U.S. citizens under age 16 (or under 19, if traveling with a school, religious group or other youth group) only need to present a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship. The birth certificate can be an original, a photocopy or a certified copy.
  • There are exceptions for members of the military who are on active duty.
  • U.S. citizens on cruises that begin and end at the same U.S. port and travel only in the Western Hemisphere can reenter the U.S. with both a birth certificate and government-issued photo ID. However, it might be necessary to carry a passport anyway, depending on the countries to be visited and their entry requirements.

Foreign nationals

America’s WHTI rules have introduced changes for citizens of a few other countries, too.

  • Bermudian citizens have to present a valid passport when entering by any means.
  • When entering by land or sea, Canadians can present a valid passport,
    enhanced driver’s license or trusted traveler program card. As with Americans, when arriving by land or sea, Canadian children under age 16 (or under 19, if traveling with a school, religious group or other youth group) only need to present a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship.
    As for air arrivals, Canadians also can use the NEXUS card as a passport substitute at a NEXUS kiosk when departing from a designated Canadian airport. (The NEXUS program is a joint U.S.-Canadian project.)

  • Mexican citizens, including children, are required to present a passport with visa, or a border crossing card.
  • Foreigners who are lawful permanent residents of the U.S. are not affected by WHTI. They are still required to present their permanent resident card (Form I-551) or other valid evidence of permanent residence status.

The passport card

The passport card, which is the size of a driver’s license, is a substitute for the larger and costlier passport book and can be used to enter the U.S. from Bermuda, Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico at land crossings or at a seaport. However, the passport card cannot be used for international travel by air and cannot be used for reentry from other countries.
The card contains a vicinity-read radio frequency identification (RFID) chip. No personal information is written to the RFID chip. Instead, the chip points to stored records in secure government databases. The State Department, at its Web site, says the card’s state-of-the-art security features prevent counterfeiting and forgery.
A handful of U.S. states and Canadian provinces issue enhanced driver’s licenses, which also feature the RFID technology and essentially function like the U.S. passport card.

Some practicalities

  • Go to the U.S. State Department’s Web site for information on the latest prices and instructions on how to obtain a passport book or a passport card. The URL is http://passports.state.gov
    As for timing, the State Department says at its site that normal processing takes four to six weeks, with expedited processing bringing that to three weeks — but that costs more. Based on need, the timeframe for getting the passport can be brought down further to eight business days or less.

  • For those who need assistance getting a passport or even a visa, or need to get those things in a hurry, there many specialists who will do the heaving lifting, for a fee. Start the search for an expeditor at National Association of Passport and Visa Services, www.napvs.org. The members of this group swear to abide by a code of conduct.
  • Immigration agents continue to deal with travelers on a case-by-case basis when a passport has been lost or stolen while the passport holder is outside the country. Americans can board their transport home to the U.S. if their story is believable, but greater proof will be required to support the claim of citizenship. Expect more delays at the entry port, too.