When Do I Need a Passport to Travel?

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If you’re new to traveling, or if you’ve enjoyed only domestic travel up to this point, you might be wondering if and when you need a passport.

For travel within the United States, you don’t need one at all. A state-issued driver’s licence or ID card is all you need. Beginning in October 2021, it will need to be REAL ID compliant, but that’s only a matter of replacing your license. That will mean you can board a plane and go sightseeing in NYC or exploring the Grand Canyon with just the ID sitting in your wallet. Nothing wrong with that!

Domestic travel is awesome and usually very affordable, but if you want to branch out into the wild and wonderful world of international travel, you do need some extra documentation. Namely, a passport. In this article, I’ll explain the difference between a U.S. passport and a passport card and lay out which one you’ll want.

A Passport Book vs. a Passport Card

When people talk about passports, they generally mean passport books. You know, those dark blue booklets with your picture, key personal information, and blank pages for visas and stamps.

A U.S. passport book grants visa-free entry to most countries in the world, giving travelers impressive flexibility. It’s a versatile travel document and a universal form of identification. Still, applying for a passport with the $145 price tag can be a bit off-putting.

You might be intrigued by the less-expensive passport card. This wallet-sized travel document is like the passport’s less competent little brother. It functions as proof of identity and citizenship, but it doesn’t carry the same weight as a passport. You can use it to re-enter the U.S. via land or sea but cannot use it for international air travel of any kind.

Still wondering when you’ll need a U.S. passport versus just the passport card? Let’s go through some examples.

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Air Travel to Canada

Crossing the northern border? From sightseeing in Toronto to visiting Banff National Park, Canada has a lot to offer. So how do you get in?

Anyone entering Canada must present proof of identity and proof of citizenship. For U.S. citizens, that means a valid passport, a passport card, or a NEXUS card. On your return trip, you can use those same documents — or even an enhanced driver’s license — if you’re traveling by land or sea.

However, if returning to the U.S. via air travel, you’ll have to present a passport book or NEXUS card. A passport card won’t cut it. So…while you can drive over the border and back with a passport card, you need a full passport for return by air.

Do I Need a Passport for Travel to Mexico?

U.S. citizens traveling to Mexico by air require a valid passport, same as any other country. So if you’re planning a vacation in sunny Cancun, you’ll need it in hand.

When driving across the border, a passport, passport card, enhanced driver’s license, or Trusted Traveler Program card will do the trick. However, travelers who plan to drive past the border zone (about 12 miles in), also need to stop to obtain a vehicle permit, which requires a passport. So unless you plan to stay within the border zone, make sure you pack your passport when you head south.

International Air Travel

Any international return air travel requires a passport, full stop. Touring Europe, exploring Asia, visiting Australia…you get the idea. In addition to your passport, some countries might require a visa. U.S. passport holders are lucky to enjoy visa-free entry to most countries, but there are exceptions, so always check that out before departing.

On that note, you might have heard that some changes are on the horizon for European travel. Starting sometime in 2023, Americans will need to register for a visa waiver when travelling to the Schengen Area of Europe. It isn’t a big deal — it’s basically just a quick online registration — but it’s something to keep on your radar in the future.

International Cruises

Cruises are a great way to combine the adventure of sightseeing in multiple cities with much-needed relaxation. And if you’re not one for relaxation, cruise ships themselves are chock-full of shows and activities to take in, too. If your cruise includes ports in (most) other countries, you’ll need a passport before you board.

A note about closed-loop cruises (those that begin and end at the same U.S. port): U.S. citizens may be able to get by with a birth certificate and photo ID. However, depending on which countries the cruise will visit, you might need a passport to enter those countries. It’s always best to consult official government websites so you have your facts straight well in advance of your trip. Taking the full book might be your best bet anyway, just in case you had to fly home from a port for an emergency.

Similarly, a passport card is technically all you need to cruise between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean. The catch is that the card is only good for re-entry to America by sea. This means if you have to cut your cruise short and fly home for any reason, you would have to arrange for an expensive expedited passport application in order to board a plane home.

The Bottom Line

If you’re traveling within the U.S., you don’t need to worry about a passport. Grab your state-issued identification and you’re good to go.

But if international travel is in the cards, you’ll most likely need a U.S. passport. Yes, there are a couple of situations in which you can get by with just the card (such as when you’re re-entering by land or sea), but it might be a safer bet to carry the real deal when you’re leaving the country, just in case you need to fly back unexpectedly.

The good news? Once you bite the bullet and get a passport book, it’s good for 10 years. Think of the possibilities! I recommend getting your money’s worth by using that baby as often as possible.

Tell us about your travel plans. Where are you headed next?

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