Passport Rules: Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative

Beginning June 1st, 2009, all Carribean, Mexico and Canada cruise passengers will need a passport, or the new passport ID card, to re-enter the United States after a cruise EXCEPT for what are known as "closed loop cruises." A closed-loop cruise is one that stays within the Western Hemisphere and leaves and returns from the same place.

Last year's notion that passports will not be needed by cruise passengers within the Western Hemisphere is no longer true.

The first phase of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative initiative took effect in January 2007 when U.S. citizens needed a U.S. passport in order to travel by air anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. However, people crossing land borders between the United States and either Mexico or Canada could enter with just a drivers license and a certified birth certificate.

On June 1, that provision of the initiative ends. On June 1st the passport requirement applies to all land and sea travelers including people who drive into Canada and Mexico, or take cruises to and from those countries.

The initiative is a significant change from the past. Americans returning from Canada, for example, previously had to show only a driver's license to prove identification and a birth certificate to show citizenship or, in even longer-ago days, simply needed to declare U.S. citizenship. Now, an actual passport or passport ID card are the only acceptable options. At CruiseMates we still recommend that everyone should apply for a passport because they are accepted at all U.S. border crossings, including airports and cruise terminals. In case of emergency if one must return home by air a passport is the only accepted document.

A U.S. passport proves both identity and citizenship. But if you are not worried about arriving in the United States by air then the State Department also has a new wallet-sized passport card that is less expensive than a standard passport. But, it can only be used for land and sea travel within the Western Hemisphere and can't be used for international air travel.

It is hoped these new requirements will speed up border crossings, which tend to move along just fine when only passports are used but can get bogged down significantly when anyone presents one of up to 8000 different types of formerly accepted documents including state drivers licenses and various county-issued birth certificates.

As of June 1st, the total number of approved travel documents is now six.

Not only will the new procedures speed up the entry process, it is hoped it will lessen the chances of somebody getting into the country illegally via a forged driver's license or birth certificate. 39 ports of entry will be equipped with electronic devices to read a passport card radio chips. No information is stored on the chip itself, but it leads agents to a separate, secure database on which a traveler's personal information is stored.

Travelers who do not have a passport, passport card or other approved document after June 1 will face delays as Customs and Border Patrol officers will need to confirm identity.


Count on the passport acquisition process to take six weeks from start to finish to receive a U.S. passport. It may take less and varies greatly by the demand.

Passport applications are available at 9,000 designated passport acceptance facilities such as post office branches, county and city clerk of courts offices, and regional passport agencies operated by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs. General information about passports and the application process can be found at the State Department's passport Web site. The application can even be downloaded online at

The application must be submitted with two suitable head shots, which can be taken at copy centers and drugstores with photo processing services. Also required is proof of identity by a state-issued photo ID card or driver's license and proof of citizenship, such as a certified birth certificate or naturalization certificate. Take everything to a passport acceptance facility along with your processing payment.

Expedited service is available for an extra fee. That, plus paying for overnight delivery, can shave the process down to two to three weeks door-to-door. Passports only, not the new ID cards.

If your trip is in two weeks, applicants can go in person to one of 17 regional passport agencies such as in Los Angeles or New York. In a "life or death" emergency -- a funeral or other family crisis -- passport officials may be able to process an application on weekends.

For more information about passports, call the National Passport Information Center at (877) 487-2778 or visit the center's Web site.

For more information about the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative and the regulations that take effect June 1, visit the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's WHTI Web site.

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