You never got a passport because you never needed one? Get it now, because you’re gonna need it unless you never plan to take a family vacation. But if that were the case, you wouldn’t be visiting, would you?

As of June 1, 2009, all U.S. citizens, including children, newborns and infants, must present a passport or other approved travel document when entering the United States by air, land or sea, even if you’ve just stepped across the border to get a look at Niagara Falls from the Canadian side.

In the old days, a drivers’ license would get you across a border, but not anymore.  In 2004 the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 was passed. Along with it came the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.  The goal of that initiative is to facilitate entry for U.S. citizens and legitimate foreign visitors, while strengthening U.S. border security. To achieve the goal, the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative requires all travelers to have a passport or other accepted travel document to enter or depart the United States. Standard travel documents allow the Department of Homeland Security to quickly and reliably determine a traveler’s identity and citizenship. 

By Air, Land or Sea
The WHTI has been in effect for air travelers since January 23, 2007, but on June 1, 2009 this initiative took effect for those traveling by land and sea to and from the Americas, the Caribbean and Bermuda as well. Now all travelers must have a passport or other accepted travel document to enter or depart the United States.
The rules for cruises are a bit different. If you are taking a closed-loop cruise (begin and end at the same US port), you may be able to travel with just a birth certificate and government ID. But you may need a passport anyway to enter the countries your cruise ship visits along the way. Check with your cruise line to make sure you have the correct documentation. 

For up-to-date travel document requirements and information, visit U. S. Department of State passport information, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol,, and U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Getting a Passport
Getting a passport is straightforward; the whole process can be done at a branch of the post office. Here’s the process:   Fill in the application, provide proof of citizenship, show proof of identity, pay the fee ($75 for ages 16 and older and $60 for 15 and under), provide passport photos … and wait. The regular processing time is 4-6 weeks, so plan in advance. You can request expedited service from the passport office to receive your passport within 2-3 weeks for an additional fee of $60.

What “other approved travel document” can you use? In 2008 the United States began issuing Passport Cards. Depending on your travel needs, this card could be a good alternative to a passport. The cards are wallet-size, and they cost only $20 ($10 for anyone under 16 years of age). However, the U.S. Passport Card cannot be used for international air travel. The U.S. Passport Card can be used only to enter the United States from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda at land border crossings or sea ports-of-entry. In addition, some border states and provinces will issue Enhanced Drivers’ Licenses that denote the citizenship of the licensee as well as the identity. These too are acceptable for certain cross-border travel by land or sea only.

Passports for Kids
Getting a passport for a child is a little more involved in an effort to combat international abductions. There are special forms and every child must appear in person to apply, along with both parents. Parents have to submit photocopies of documents in specific government-approved forms (i.e. on 8 ½ by 11 white paper—“The 8 1/2 x 11" paper size cannot be substituted with a larger or smaller size paper, even if the alternative folds down to the 8 1/2 x 11" size,” the Web site says). If one parent is unavailable, the other must bring a notarized letter and Form DS-3053. Parent with sole custody have to prove their status to get the passport.

When Your Passport Expires
Keep an eye on the expiration date of your passport. U.S. passports must be valid for at least six months after entry into a foreign country. Although some countries are more relaxed about this regulation, all countries can and do enforce the six month policy if the immigration official wants to. So if you are planning to travel, get your documents ready to go.

A Speedier Passport
What do you do when you need to get documents issued FAST? If you are really stuck in a time crunch, there are a number of expediting services out there that advertise incredibly fast turnaround times for obtaining passports. Some agencies offer same-day service for certain geographic areas! But, be prepared to pay for the convenience of having your crisis solved for you. Expediting companies include, ABriggs, RushMyPassport and USPassportNow

The expediting agency’s fee is dependent upon how fast you need your document. For example, same-day service would be approximately $250, 2-4 day service approximately $180, and so on down to around $65 for 11+ day processing. Then add in the overnight shipping fee and an additional government fee of $135 for jumping the queue.

Once you hire the agency to help you out, the agency then tells you what you need to provide in the way of documents and passport photos. Once they receive the necessary material, they go to work for you and deliver your passport directly to you. You are paying a premium for convenience and speed, but you still have to do some of the leg work and fill in the forms. But if your trip depends on it, then it’s probably your only option.

So, who uses this service, and is it worth it? There are countless testimonials online from happy customers who have used expediting services. These stories range from last minute business trips to damaged and stolen passports. You can decide if it’s worth it. But go to your calendar right now and schedule a time to check that your travel documents are in order. In fact, put it on a regular maintenance schedule. I am going to check mine right now.