Passport Rules and Current Passport News

What's Up With Passports Right Now: Passports in the News

Holiday booking Female hands using laptop
••• John Lamb/Photodisc/Getty Images
FYI: How to check US passport application status here

Passport rules and passport news for US citizens are a bit confusing right now -- understand what's happening with passports rules, who needs passports, whether you need passports to cross US borders and what's going on with passport news. Read on below for the current US passport news and rules or jump around in this article:

Current Passport News

The background: Passports have been in the news often since 2004, the first of many changed deadlines on new passport rules. Citing post-9/11 border security concerns and after four false starts, the US guv began requiring US citizens returning from the Caribbean (excepting US territories), Bermuda, Mexico and Canada by air to present passports on January 23, 2007 (exceptions were made to that date in June, 2007 -- see more just below); historically, travelers were able to move between countries using a birth certificate embossed with state seal and government-issued photo ID.
US citizens may still use that ID method to travel by land or sea from Mexico or Canada to the US; legislation dictates that the deadline by which passports must be shown at US land borders is June 1, 2009. The Department of State had been indicating it would try to enforce a land travel/passport rule by summer, 2008 (and before that, they were ludicrously aiming for January, 2008), but in concordance with the 2006 Congressional approval of a report regarding the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, Congress definitively delayed the deadline for using a passport in Mexico/Canada land crossings to June 1, 2009.

    The passport rules changes are part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, a set of travel rule changes recommended by the Department of Homeland Security (a government entity launched September 20, 2001 and charged with domestic terrorism protection and anticipation). Cynics say that the Bush administration's stance on illegal immigration was also partially responsible for fixing a situation that, at least in the case of US-Canada border crossings, wasn't broken.

    The current situation: Passports are required for entry into the United States from any foreign land by air. US territories (Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, and North Mariana Islands) are not foreign lands. US citizens may cross Canadian and Mexican borders using government-issued id like a driver's license and proof of citizenship like an official (usually embossed) US state birth certificate until June 1, 2009.

    What's next: Passports will be required for all land and sea border crossings into the US as of June 1, 2009. In the meantime, a few things have and may yet transpire:

    • Teens under 18 will be allowed to continue crossing borders with only a birth certificate after the new passport rules take effect, as is currently possible (read more)

    A passport land travel rule change date of January, 2008, was a fantasy for the Department of Homeland Security, as some kind of inexpensive border crossing substitute for a $97 passport, like the PASS card, was not going to happen by then and prior passport rule changes had caused serious problems during implementation. At this point, DHS will offer 60 days notice before passports begin to be required for US citizens at Mexico and Canada land borders.

    A Congressional conference committee was slated to meet for a discussion which may delay the PASS card implementation as insecure RFID technology proposed for use in chips in the cards is discussed, but they were okayed.

    The DHS has not really begun to look at economic impacts from the new passport requirements -- the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative will cost more than $100 million annually.

    How to keep up: About's Student Travel will blog when news happens on the passport front -- keep an eye out, or bookmark this page for the latest in passport news.

    Please go on to the next page to read about current travel requirements and passport rules, like which countries you need passports for.

    For what countries do US citizens need a passport for travel? Returning to the US from all of them by air, land or sea required a passport* from US citizens as of June 1, 2009, though Mexico and Canada can still be traveled to (returned to the US from) by land without a passport and with a PASS card or high tech driver's license (the latter's only available to residents of certain states). Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, among other island areas, are US territories** and no passport is required from US citizens for travel between them and the US whether by air, land, sea or spaceship.

    *Scroll down to see all documents acceptable for entry into the US by US residents.

    **US commonwealths/territories: American Samoa, Baker Island, Howland Island, Guam, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Midway Islands, Navassa Island, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Palmyra Atoll, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands (St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas), and Wake Island.

    Passports and Western hemisphere travel are an issue because historically US citizens have been allowed to travel between Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean, Bermuda and Panama bearing only US citizenship proof like an "official" birth certificate (usually embossed with state seal) and a government-issued id (like a driver's license); new passport rules now (as of June 1, 2009) require a passport when returning to the US by air, land or sea from those countries, although a passport substitute or other guv document*** may work.

    Do I need a passport to travel to Mexico and Canada?

    The answer is yes if traveling by air: you need a passport to return to the United States from Mexico and Canada by air as of 2007. The answer might be no if crossing borders by land or sea, because other documents specifically intended for land and sea crossings (like a PASS card) may be used. Yeah, complicated, but the gist is that you can no longer do it with a regular driver's license and birth certificate. History:

    Recommendations made by the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) caused passport rules to change in 2007, when travelers began needing passports if returning to the US by air from Canada and Mexico. DHS has also been requiring passports from US citizens crossing Mexican and Canadian borders by land or sea as of June 1, 2009. Some things happened by the legislated mandatory date of June 1, 2009 (issued by Congress in order to allow the Department of Homeland Security to make WHTI changes smoothly):

    Do I need a passport to travel to the Caribbean?

    If you are returning to the US from foreign nations in the Caribbean by air, then the answer is yes.

    Some Caribbean islands are US territories -- you do not need a passport to travel to Puerto Rico or the US Virgin Islands by sea, air or spaceship any more than you need a passport to drive from Manhattan to Montana.

    Guam, US Samoa, Palau and other Micronesian islands are also US territories (complete list above).

    In order to travel to and from US territories in the Caribbean (Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands -- St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John) from the mainland US by air, you will need:

    • Official government issued picture identification like a current driver’s license or a photo ID card, which can be issued to non-drivers by your state’s motor vehicles department, or a passport (of course) or two forms of non-photo identification (one needs to be state-issued)
    • Proof of US citizenship -- like a birth certificate -- may make leaving the USVI for the mainland USA easier (learn more) because the USVI is considered a "port of entry"
    A passport is definitely needed to leave and then return to the US Virgin Islands (like hopping to the British Virgin Islands).

    You can get more information from the Puerto Rico State Department at 787-722-2121, or the US Virgin Islands' tourism department at 800-372-8784 or Bureau of Customs at 340-774-2510.

    You may want to read:

    Frequently Asked Questions About Mexico Travel

    If you're heading to Mexico, get the answers to some frequently asked questions about Mexico travel:

    You may also want to read a beginner's guide to Mexico travel and a Mexico travel planning FAQ.

    WHTI-Compliant Documents

    The ***WHTI (Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative) is the rule that set all of these new border ID requirements in motion under the Bush administration. Border ID that is acceptable these days under the WHTI:

    Read more about all of these WHTI-compliant documents; a US passport is probably your best choice, but you may want to get informed:

    • WHTI-compliant Documents

    Please go on to the next page to read about passports and minors.

    The US Department of Homeland Security, perhaps not unexpectedly, proposed a change in passport rules affecting minor student travelers which is now in effect: while those over 18 must begin presenting passports at land and sea border crossings between Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean, Bermuda and the US in 2009, 15-under U.S. citizen children are to be exempt from the new requirement and are allowed to present ID and the original or copy of their birth certificate, or other proof of U.S. citizenship such as a naturalization certificate or citizenship card, and 16-18 year olds will be exempt (and able to present ID and proof of citizenship instead of passports) if traveling with public or private school groups, religious groups, social or cultural organizations or teams associated with youth athletics organizations and under adult supervision.

    Children over 16 must have passports or PASS cards or enhanced driver's licenses.

    Currently (and historically), US citizens under 18 may cross land and sea borders to and from the affected countries while bearing only a government-issued ID (like a driver's license) and proof of citizenship (like a US birth certificate) but must carry passports for air travel entry into the US. US territories are exempted from new passport rules that became effective January 23, 2007 requiring passports from those traveling by air.

    The proposed teen passport exemption will eventually be open for public comment as part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative at

    If you're way under 18, like under 14, then read up on what to do (with your parents) on the US government's passport site.

    Please go on to the next page to read about PASS cards and passport substitutes.

    Availability of new passport substitutes is (finally) here with the PASS (People Access Security Service) card; you can apply for a passport card here. The PASS card and other potential passport substitutes will enable US citizens to cross land borders between Canada, Mexico and the US without a traditional and more expensive passport. The PASS passport card is cheaper than a passport; a high-tech driver's license is also available in some states.

    PASS Card

    The PASS card (People Access Security Service) is a credit card-sized passport substitute available to all US citizens who are also eligible for passports. It weighs in at $45 (renewals $20 for adults over 16). The point is expense -- especially for student travelers, a $97 passport can be a big deterrent to a quick trip to a bordering country.

    Users will be able to present the PASS passport card at any land and sea border between the US and Mexico and Canada just as they would a passport, and enter the country accordingly.

    The PASS passport card has been controversial in part because it contains chips using insecure RFID technology which critics (and plenty of others) say can allow anybody with the right Radio Shack equipment to read the information stored on the chip. The government says it's perfectly fine and that they have been working on that technology, and that none of your personal information is stored on your chip.

    Decide for yourself:

    Read more about other documents acceptable for US border crossings:

    • WHTI-compliant Documents

    • PASS Card News
      • PASS Card Development Announced: "...Travel associations have commented negatively on proposed implementation of passport regulations. The National Tour Association, which has a membership comprised largely of tour operators, had previously informed the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security that "...a passport-only (border crossing) requirement would severely limit student travel." (Read more...)
      • PASS Card Development Open for Public Comment: "...The advent of the new passport 'substitute,' the PASS card, has been announced at last -- a federal rule proposing the development of the inexpensive card-format passport for international travel has been submitted for public comment. Production of the long-awaited PASS card, the idea of which was discussed by the Department of Homeland Security in January 2006, should ease the worries of the student travel industry..." (Read more...)
      • PASS Passport Card On the Way: "...The eventual availability of new passport "substitutes," like the PASS card, public comment for which was announced in November, was referenced in a February 2007 DHS press release on proposed teen passport regulations; DHS says the US Department of State will '...soon issue final regulations...'" (Read more...)

      See comments submitted to the US guv regarding the PASS card

      "High-Tech" Driver's Licenses

      High tech driver's licenses are now available (or go into production May 29) to US residents of New York, Washington (State), Michigan and Vermont. From the guv: "This driver’s license or identification document that denotes identity and citizenship. It is specifically designed for cross-border travel into the U.S. by land or sea."
      • More on WHTI-compliant Documents
      Archived news:

      Potential legislation is afoot in the US House of Representatives which will force US guv officials to rethink the ramming through of new Canadian-Mexico land travel passport rules between now and June 1, 2009 without audited consideration of a high-tech driver's license pilot project. Congress chose the 2009 deadline in May, 2006 (and verified that in January, 2007) in order to provide US guv departments, like Homeland Security, some room in which to come up with viable and less expensive passport options; sounds like the apparently pending introduction of a bill from New York Representative Louise Slaughter will force those officials to do just that.

      Legislation dictates that the deadline by which passports must be shown at US land borders is June 1, 2009. (The Department of State had been indicating it might try to enforce a land travel/passport rule by early January, 2008 -- that's no longer happening.)

      Suspicions that the Department of State and Homeland Security might not use the time granted by Congress to come up with a less expensive and practical alternative to passports, including the PASS passport card, may be shared by those backing Slaughter's bill, which will, according to reports, require those departments to evaluate alternative ID pilot projects like an enhanced driver's license for Canadians and Americans, report back to Congress and submit that report to the Government Accountability Office for auditing. U.S. officials would also be forced to make a cost-benefit analyzation of land-travel passport requirements and an alternative high-tech ID card.

      The Canadian Press, which is calling the ID alternatives "Passport Lite," reports that Slaughter's bill, which would set "Passport Lite" costs at $20 and make the ID available within ten days of application, would also exempt those under 17 from passport requirements.

      Student travel trade organizations and players have long lobbied for an alternative to passport-only travel between Canada and the US, predicting subsequent tourism industry economic difficulty and a drastic drop in cross-border student travel; Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy last year called passport legislation implementation a "train wreck" in the making. The National Tour Association, which has a membership comprised largely of tour operators, previously informed the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security that "...a passport-only (border crossing) requirement would severely limit student travel." Slaughter is quoted by the Canadian National Post as saying that the US administration is pursuing passport plans that "...will be economically disastrous for both the United States and Canada."

      Please go on to the next page for passport rule changes and passport legislation.

      US passport legislation history since 2004 has been interesting, and Department of Homeland Security and Department of State efforts to enforce new passport rules have resulted in many changes, cancellations of deadlines, and even legislation as Congress stepped in to fix things. A timeline of the passport rule change and legislation history:

      • 2004 -- First deadline for the requirement of passports being carried by all travelers, no matter the travel method, is set.
      • December, 2005 -- The Student Youth Travel Association issues a press release stating: "...An ID card sounds like a good alternative, but even if the cost is modestly high, or the process of getting one is complicated and time-consuming, young travelers will still face the same obstacles they would getting passports. We suggest making the IDs free to young travelers, or offer it to them at a minimal cost that takes into account the family’s financial status."
      • December, 2005 - First deadline of December 31, 2005, for the requirement of passports being carried by all travelers, no matter the travel method, is changed to 2006.
      • January, 2006 -- PASS card passport Substitute announced (read Cheaper PASS to Replace Passports at Mexico, Canada Crossings)
      • January, 2006 -- New passport change timeline announced (read "Do I Need a Passport for Travel to Mexico, Canada or the Caribbean?")
      • April, 2006 -- US and Canadian tourism officials officially discuss fears that passport changes will harm cross-border tourism and wreak economic havoc (read "Passports: US to Canada, Mexico Travel in the News Again")
      • May, 2006 -- US Senate votes May 16 that the December 31 deadline requiring US citizens to show passports at Mexico and Canada borders be extended by at least 17 months to June, 2009 (read "Mexico and Canada Passport, Travel Rule Deadline Extended?")
      • June, 2006 -- The Canadian Globe and Mail reports that, because Homeland Security has not yet published details of the latest 2006/7 and 2007/8 rules which will then have to go through a public comment period before they can be imposed, changes won't happen on time according to insider Canadian and US officials (read "Canada, Mexico passport travel deadline delay?")
      • February, 2007 -- Passport changes or, more accurately, lack of changes, are proposed for minors (read "Mexico, Canada Passport Change Proposed for Minors")
      • March, 2007 -- In a completely expected development, the US Department of State is saying passport applications numbers are "unprecedented" right now, and that wait times on passports has increased to up to ten weeks (normal waits are six-eight weeks) and four weeks on an regular expedited passport application, though you will get one quicker if you're leaving the country within two weeks. They also say they're "taking extraordinary action" to keep up -- according to a recent press release, they've hired 250 new adjudicators to help handle the more than one million new passport applications they receive monthly (17 million applications expected in 2007, up from 12 million in 2006).

        "We recognize that Americans have unprecedented travel document needs," the release reads; yes, that would be because the US gov's Department of Homeland Security decided... (finish reading "Passports Slow, Guv Says")

      • May, 2007 -- "Passports: House Says 'Delay,' DHS Says 'No Way'": The US House recently passed a measure meant to push back the date on which passports will be required for land crossings of Canadian or Mexican borders into the US until 2009 or beyond, but Department of Homeland Security officials have responded that they will be ready for new passport requirements by January 2008. But will the Department of State? They certainly weren't ready for the very predictable onslaught of applications prior this year (read more...)
      • June, 2007 -- Passport rules have been modified because the passport restrictions which began January 23 have resulted in such a massive backlog of passport applications. Until September 30, you may travel under old passport rules if your passport is pending -- that means you've applied for a passport and are waiting for the passport to arrive (read more...)
      • June, 2007 -- "Expedited Passport Fee Refunds Available" (read more...)
      • December, 2007 -- U.S. Congress passes legislation delaying the requirement for passports at the Canadian/Mexico border until at least June 2009.
      Please go back to the first page to read about current travel requirements and passports.