If you're traveling outside the country this summer -- driving to Canada or taking an Alaskan cruise, for instance -- you should get a passport now if you don't already have one. That's because on June 1, for the first time, travelers ages 19 and older arriving into the United States by land or sea from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and Caribbean countries must show a passport, passport card or one of several federally approved IDs to enter. It's the final phase of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), a tightening of border security rules enacted by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Travelers entering the United States by air from those countries have needed passports since early 2007. That switch resulted in a deluge of passport applications and months-long delays. To manage the next round of changes, the State Department has increased staffing at passport agencies and has offered assurances that passport applications should take no longer than three weeks to process.
Still, given the hassles that occurred with the previous switch, travel experts say it's better to be safe than sorry. "We've been suggesting to people for over two years to get their documents in compliance," said Mike Milne, public affairs officer for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) department that oversees the U.S. northern border from Washington state to the Great Lakes. "There is still time to get them, but we are getting short on time."
If you will be flying in or out of the United States, a passport book is your only choice. The books are valid for 10 years and cost $100. But if you only plan to drive back and forth to Canada, there are less expensive options. A passport card, which can't be used for air travel, costs $45, lasts 10 years and can easily fit into your wallet.
Other states, including Washington and Michigan, have started offering travelers the option of enhancing their drivers' licenses with microchips that prove they are U.S. citizens. A bill authored in the Legislature by Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, could do the same for Minnesotans at a cost of $15 per license. The bill passed its first hurdle in the Transportation Committee and is awaiting action in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"It's not just a dollar saving, but a matter of real convenience," said Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, who co-authored the bill. "To carry another document -- whether it's a passport or a passport card -- is an inconvenience. For people who live in International Falls, their favorite restaurant or church might be in Fort Frances [Canada]."
Children who are U.S. citizens and younger than 16 will be able to cross the border with a copy of their birth certificate or other proof of U.S. citizenship, such as a naturalization certificate or citizenship card, according to the CBP's Milne. Children who are 17 or 18 will need proof of citizenship as well as one other form of legal identification, such as a driver's license.
For more information about how to apply for a passport or a passport card, check out the Star Tribune's Passport Guide at www.startribune.com/life style/travel/39080447.html.