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Paper wait

January 13, 2008|Catharine Hamm

Question: I want to fly from LAX to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, in February. I don't have a passport, but I hear that a certified birth certificate (not a photocopy) and a driver's license will get me in and out of country. True?

-- William FrohmbergAnswer: For fliers, false.

If you don't already have a post-holiday headache, what follows will surely give you one, thanks to the U.S. government's now-you-need-it, now-you-don't approach to travel documents. So listen up.

If you are planning to travel by air anywhere outside the United States and its possessions or territories, go immediately to and apply for your passport.

With luck, you should have it in four to six weeks.

If, however, you are traveling by land or sea -- and that means the weekend car traveler to Rosarito Beach in Baja, Mexico, or the ferry-ride day-tripper from Seattle to Victoria, Canada -- the rules are different, the timeline for the rules is different and the documents you need can be different.

Thoroughly confused? You have a right to be.

The tangle began last January when the first part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative went into effect. It said air travelers needed a passport for travel that involved Mexico, Canada and parts of the Caribbean. The ensuing avalanche of applications swamped the processing system, creating a backlog at one point of 3 million passport applications and waits of 12 weeks or more for a passport's return.

Congress realized, in the fullness of its heart, that its constituents weren't getting their passports and were annoyed about missing their vacations. So in June, it relaxed the "passport or else for air travelers" rule until Sept. 30. That gave processors time to catch up.

Part 2 of the WHTI -- the land/sea phase -- was to go into effect this coming June, but toward the end of 2007, Congress, again in the fullness of its heart, realized the potential for another passport debacle (and perhaps realized that annoyed constituents in an election year could be problematic). It delayed implementation until June 2009.

To add to the confusion, the State Department is talking about a new passport card, which should be available in the spring.

This limited-use document, or as I like to call it, Passport Lite, would cost $45, less than half the cost of the regular passport, and could be used for land/sea crossings from Canada, Mexico and parts of the Caribbean.

For a fuller read on this issue, go to for a Q&A. But first, take a couple of aspirins and call the State Department ([877] 487-2778) in the morning.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@

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