U.S. citizens take for granted that they can travel for thousands of miles without leaving the country — or needing travel documents. But if you have your sights set on international travel, you will need a passport in most cases.
There are a few countries where you may not need a passport. Keep in mind that requirements for travel can change rapidly, so check with the U.S. Department of State for the most up-to-date information before you hop a flight or set sail.
How Passports Work
A passport is a legal identity document issued by a specific country. A passport is used to verify a traveler’s citizenship. In the U.S., most passports are valid for ten years before they need to be renewed.
Countries Where You Don’t Need a Passport
Here are a few countries where you won’t need a passport if you are a citizen of the U.S.:
In some situations, you may not need a passport to cross into Mexico or Canada by land or sea. If you have a Ready Lane acceptable document, you may be able to use that rather than a passport. These include U.S. Passport Cards, Enhanced Driver’s Licenses, Enhanced Tribal Cards, Enhanced Border Crossing Cards, Enhanced Permanent Resident Cards, and Trusted Traveler Program cards (NEXUS, SENTRI, Global Entry, or FAST).
U.S. citizens who are under the age of 16 (or those ages 16 to 18 who are traveling with a school, religious, or other youth group) also do not need a passport when crossing into Canada or Mexico by land or sea. They can present a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship.
Certain international cruises may not require you to provide a passport, as long as they begin and end at the same U.S. port. Note that this only applies to your ability to enter the U.S. If you don’t bring a passport on an international cruise, the cruise company may prevent you from boarding or you may not be able to disembark the ship when it stops. Check with your cruise company to make sure that you have the documents they require.
You can travel in the Caribbean using the exemptions we mentioned above — either on a closed-loop international cruise or by visiting one of the U.S. territories in the Caribbean. These include the three islands of Puerto Rico — the namesake main island, plus Vieques and Culebra — plus St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas, collectively known as the U.S. Virgin Islands. To visit all other Caribbean countries, you will need a passport.
There are a few places way out in the Pacific Ocean that you can visit without a passport. Besides Hawaii, the islands of Guam and American Samoa are U.S. territories. All other Pacific countries and territories will require a passport to visit.
Traveling to Guam or American Samoa can make for an amazing trip and may not feel like you’re still in the U.S.
You will need a passport to enter Europe, including Scandinavia. However, most of Europe is part of what’s called the Schengen Area, where there are no border controls between countries. So while you will need a passport to get into France, for example, you won’t need your passport to travel between France and Germany.
Do I Need an Enhanced or Real ID Driver’s License?
Whether you need an enhanced or Real ID Driver’s License depends on what you are trying to do and where you are traveling to. Enhanced Driver’s Licenses (EDLs) are state-issued driver’s licenses that also provide proof of citizenship and identity. Currently, only a few states issue EDLs (Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Vermont and Washington), but they may become more popular over time.
For the vast majority of international travel, U.S. citizens require a passport both to enter into another country as well as to return to the U.S. However, there are a few scenarios where you can use other documentation to enter another country or get back into the U.S. Make sure you fully understand the requirements set by the State Department as well as your travel provider (airline or cruise company) to avoid any messy border situations.
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Can you legally leave the US without a passport?
Yes, there are certain situations where you can legally leave the United States without a passport. Depending on the circumstances and the documents you have with you, you may be able to travel by land to Mexico or Canada without a passport. You may also be able to travel on some international cruises as long as they start and end in the same U.S. port. Make sure you understand the guidelines published by the State Department before you leave the country.
Where can U.S. citizens travel without a passport?
Most international destinations require a passport for United States citizens. However, depending on what other documents you have or your specific situation, you may be able to board an international cruise or travel by land to Mexico or Canada without a passport.
What is the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative?
The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) is a U.S. initiative started in 2004 as a way to streamline entry to the United States from various other countries in the Western Hemisphere. As part of the WHTI, U.S. citizens can present other documents besides a passport when entering the United States. These may include a passport card, Trusted Traveler card (such as NEXUS or Global Entry). Make sure you understand the requirements published by the U.S. government to avoid a sticky situation at the border.
Photo credit: iStock/xavierarnau
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