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Make passport plans now for Mexico and Canada trips

Starting June 1, U.S. citizens will have to show a passport or other special document for land or sea travel. Be prepared for any hitches.

February 08, 2009|Jane Engle

If you're traveling outside the U.S. this year, here are two pieces of advice: Get or renew your passport now, and think twice before planning a car trip to Mexico or Canada in June.

That's when we may see the biggest change ever for Western Hemisphere travel. Starting June 1 (unless Congress changes the deadline), Americans will need to show a passport, a passport card or other special document to return to the U.S. by land or sea from Mexico and Canada.

Despite assurances from agencies involved, there may be glitches and delays. Two years ago, the last big change in entry rules -- requiring a passport for air passengers returning from Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean and Bermuda -- inspired a stampede of passport applications and created confusion at airports. Some travelers waited months for their passports, and others just stayed home.

Although passport demand has recently fallen along with wait times, and the State Department has ramped up staffing and facilities since 2007, the upcoming change will affect far more Americans than the 2007 rules change.

Just how many, though, is hard to quantify. Out of more than 1 million people, both U.S. and foreign citizens, who legally enter the U.S. each day, about three-fourths arrive by land from Mexico or Canada, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

But the agency doesn't keep track of how many are repeat crossers or use documents that won't be accepted after June 1, said spokeswoman Kelly Ivahnenko. So it can't predict how many Americans will need to order a passport or passport card by June.

What to do to be prepared? First, study up. Second, do some planning.

A little history: In 2004, Congress, reacting to issues raised by the Sept. 11 attacks, decided to plug a potential hole in border security that had allowed Americans to present various types of identification, such as driver's licenses, birth certificates or sometimes nothing, when reentering the U.S. from certain neighbor countries.

It passed a law that, when fully implemented, would require citizens of the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Caribbean countries and Bermuda to show passports or other secure documents that established identity and nationality in order to enter the U.S. from these nearby nations.

What followed were years of increasingly complicated rules, shifting deadlines and the Great Passport Meltdown of 2007, in which wait times for passports doubled to 12 weeks or more.

Lobbyists for border countries, employers and travel industries joined the fray. Changes were phased in by mode of travel -- air, land or sea -- with plenty of exceptions.

It was not just where you traveled but how you traveled that determined what documents you would need. In January 2007, the U.S. government began requiring a passport to fly back to the U.S. from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda. In January 2008, it said it would stop accepting oral declarations at sea and land checkpoints. And on June 1, it plans to fully implement the new document requirements for land and sea crossings.

What you need now: Generally, you need a passport to enter the U.S. by air from any foreign country. If you enter by land or sea from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean or Bermuda, you may not need a passport, but you do need at least a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship, plus a government-issued photo ID, such as a driver's license. Children 18 or younger need only a birth certificate for land and sea entry from these areas.

What you'll need starting June 1: The same rules apply for air travel: passport required.

If you're arriving from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean or Bermuda by land or sea, you'll generally have several choices: a passport; a passport card, a new type of ID that the U.S. government began issuing last year; an enhanced driver's license, a new high-tech version offered by a few states; or so-called Trusted Traveler cards such as SENTRI and NEXUS for frequent border crossers.

There will be various exceptions for land and sea crossings from these destinations. U.S. and Canadian children younger than 16, for example, will need only proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate; in organized groups, the cutoff will be age 18. Passengers on cruise ships that sail round-trip from a U.S. port may need only a birth certificate and a government-issued photo ID (although the cruise line or foreign countries they visit may require a passport.)

You'll find a summary of the current and new rules at a website maintained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, www.getyouhome.gov.

How to get the right stuff: The State Department's travel website, www.travel.state.gov, (click on "Passports for U.S. Citizens") is one-stop shopping for information on passports and passport cards. It has instructions and forms.

But you don't have to go to D.C. or even to a regional passport agency (there are two in California, one in L.A. and one in San Francisco) to get these documents.

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