Frequently asked questions about travel documents and paperwork

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about travel documents and paperwork. You can find more FAQs here.

Before you go

What do I need to know about my ID when I travel?
When do I need an ID?
When do I not need an ID?
Can I digitize my ID?
What’s a visa and when do I need one?
What’s a passport and when do I need one?
Should I get a passport or a passport card?
Who’s responsible for having the right paperwork?
Where can I find reliable information about my passport, visa, or ID requirements?
How do I get a visa?
What’s a transit visa? Do I need one?
Do I need anything else for my visa?
Can I cut the line at the border?
Do I need an International Driving Permit?
I don’t have a passport. When should I get one?
I need to renew my passport soon. When should I do it?

Troubleshooting your paperwork

What if I lose my paperwork?
My passport is damaged or mutilated — do I need a new one?
My cruise line says I can show a birth certificate? Can’t I just save the money on a passport?
What about the expediting services, or the expedite option for passports?
What’s an entrance or exit fee?
My passport is full. What should I do?
I’ve met all my paperwork requirements but I’m not being allowed to board. What now?
What if I’ve lost my passport?
What if I’ve lost my driver’s license, visa or other important paperwork?


BEFORE YOU GO

What do I need to know about my ID when I travel?

An identity document (ID) is any document which may be used to verify your identity. In the United States, most acceptable forms of ID are photo IDs issued by a state or federal government. The most common type of ID is a drivers license issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles in your state.

When do I need an ID?

A state-issued ID such as a drivers’ license is mandatory if you’re planning to drive. You may also need an ID if you’re staying at a hotel, renting a car, or catching a train, to prove you’re the one who made the reservation.

When do I not need an ID?

Strictly speaking, an ID is not required to move from point “A” to point “B” or to cross state lines in the United States. You can fly domestically without an ID, but you will get a secondary screening from the TSA. You can also make arrangements to stay in a hotel without showing an ID.

Can I digitize my ID?

Yes. It’s a good idea to to either photocopy your driver’s license, passport, visa and credit cards, front and back, before your trip or to scan them and store them online. In the event your wallet is lost or stolen, you’ll have the information on your ID and the account numbers and contact number for any lost credit cards. I recommend an app called LifeLock Wallet that allows you to do that.

What’s a visa and when do I need one?

A visa (not to be confused with the credit card) is an endorsement on a passport that allows you to enter, leave, or stay for a specified period of time in a foreign country.

When you need it: If you’re visiting a country with a visa requirement. You may also need a special kind of visa called a transit visa if you’re stopping in a country on your way to another one.

When you don’t need it: If you’re traveling to a country with a visa waiver, including frequently-visited European countries, such as the UK, France and Italy.

What’s a passport and when do I need one?

A passport is a government document which certifies your nationality and identity for the purpose of international travel. Roughly 3 in 10 Americans have a passport.

When you need it: Almost any time you cross the border.

When you don’t need it: When traveling domestically, and when taking a “closed loop” cruise, which is defined as a cruise beginning and ending in the U.S.

Note: When entering Canada or Mexico at land border crossings, or Bermuda and Caribbean nations at seaports-of-entry, you can use the less expensive US Passport Card.

Should I get a passport or a passport card?

A US Passport Card sure looks like an attractive alternative to a more expensive US Passport. For just $55, versus $110, you can get a handy card that lets you into the most popular international destinations, including Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean But not so fast. First, the passport card can’t be used for international travel by air. So it’s more limited than it appears to be, and as a practical matter it’s only good for people who make frequent road trips to Canada or Mexico, or who sail to the Caribbean. If you miss the boat because you had too much fun in a Caribbean port of call, and want to fly home, a passport card won’t work. Bottom line: If you do any kind of international travel, you’ll probably want a regular passport.

Who’s responsible for having the right paperwork?

The short answer is: You are, and you alone. In the end, it doesn’t matter what a travel agent, cruise line, tour operator, or airline says. If you don’t have the right visa, ID, passport, or transit visa, you can’t go back to them, and ask for a refund because they gave you the incorrect information. Nor should you rely on anyone, but an official government source for accurate and up-to-date information on your paperwork requirements. Please do not rely on any third party for this type of information. Repeat: Please don’t take anyone’s word for it.

Where can I find reliable information about my passport, visa, or ID requirements?

✓ The US State Department. The State Department, the government agency that deals with foreign affairs, has a website that is widely regarded as the final authority on paperwork requirements for Americans going overseas. It’s also a useful resource for information about security, and the political climate in a foreign country.

✓ A foreign embassy or consulate. The embassy of a country you intend to visit also has authoritative information on visa and passport requirements. If you’re applying for a visa, you will need to do so through an embassy or consulate. Note: there should not be conflicts between the information on the State Department site and the requirements of an embassy, but in the unlikely event that there is, you should endeavor to meet both requirements. That’s because American customs officials will be looking to meet their requirements when you cross the border, while officials from the other country will be looking to meet theirs.

✓ An official tourism website. Some state-run tourism sites will also have general information on visa and passport requirements, but they can be the most vague and least reliable. Certainly, if push comes to shove at the border, it may be difficult to show someone a printout made from a tourism website as evidence you should be let into the country.

How do I get a visa?

It depends where you’re visiting. For most countries, you can apply for a visa at any of their foreign embassies. Some countries require you apply at their embassy in your country. Most visas can be processed by mail. For example, Australia only requires you to fill out a form online and pay $25 by credit card. The less touristy a destination, the more complex the process tends to be. If you’re traveling somewhere exotic, you might want to contact a visa service to make sure the process goes smoothly and the paperwork is valid.

What’s a transit visa? Do I need one?

Some countries allow for short transit visas which you stay in a country for a few days without applying for a visa. In order to get one, you have to show proof of an outward ticket. For example, you can get a 72-hour transit visa for Russia if you arrive in St. Petersburg by boat. Again, check with the country’s embassy to find out if a transit visa is available and if it’s a better option for your trip.

Do I need anything else for my visa?

You might. Some countries, notably in Africa, require proof of a Yellow Fever vaccination. If you visit these countries, you need to have the document with you when you enter. For a complete list of health requirements, consult the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention page on health and visas.

Can I cut the line at the border?

Maybe. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Trusted Traveler Program may allow you to cut in line when you’re crossing the border. Its various programs offer expedited travel for pre-approved, low risk travelers through dedicated lanes and kiosks. The programs include Global Entry, a program that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States, NEXUS, which allows you to use a fast lane at the Canadian border, and SENTRI, which lets you cut the line when you’re crossing into Mexico.

Do I need an International Driving Permit?

An International Driving Permit (IDP), which costs $15 from AAA, is basically a translation of your American drivers license. Generally, a permit is unnecessary, unless you’re traveling somewhere fairly exotic that uses a non-Roman alphabet (Russia, China). The IDP helps authorities in those countries decipher your license, literally. You probably won’t need an IDP to rent a car, but if you get into an accident, your insurance company may — if it covers you — refuse to honor the claim because you didn’t have a valid license. Unfortunately, some less scrupulous travel agents or tour operators may try to convince you that you need this ID in order to legally drive in another country, and they make a bundle from selling fraudulent IDPs. Put it this way: I haven’t had a reader complain about being denied a rental car because of a lack of IDP. I have, however, had a few grievances about pushy travel agents trying to sell an IDP of questionable value.

I don’t have a passport. When should I get one?

How about now? If you’ve booked an international trip, there’s no time like the present to get your passport. It can take up to six weeks to get a passport, but during busy periods (just before the summer travel season, for example) it can take significantly longer. Considering that an adult passport lasts 10 years, what’s a few extra months? At least you’ll have the passport, instead of waiting nervously by the mailbox for the document to arrive. Don’t let that be you.

I need to renew my passport soon. When should I do it?

Again, the correct answer is: now. The State Department recommends that you renew your passport at least nine months before it expires. The reason? Some countries require that your passport be valid at least six months after the dates of your trip, and some airlines will not allow you to board a flight if that requirement isn’t met.

TROUBLESHOOTING YOUR PAPERWORK

What if I lose my paperwork?

When you cross the border to some countries, a customs agent will give you a form. Try not to lose it. For example, Chile issues American visitors a so-called tourist card, which must be presented upon your departure. It can only be replaced at the offices of Policía Internacional by showing your passport.

My passport is damaged or mutilated — do I need a new one?

Yes. When it doubt, get a replacement. I’ve had cases where a passport wasn’t accepted because it was damaged. The reader had to turn around and return to the United States — from South Africa.

My cruise line says I can show a birth certificate? Can’t I just save the money on a passport?

No, no, no. You need a passport. Repeat: You. Need. A. Passport. The problem isn’t that birth certificates are an acceptable form of ID on closed-loop cruises. That’s what your travel agent or cruise line will tell you. (Again, these are both patently unreliable sources of information, when it comes to your paperwork requirements.) Rather, the problem is that you will have to deal with others along the way who may disagree with your travel agent’s or cruise line’s interpretation of what does and doesn’t constitute a valid birth certificate. Does it have to have a “raised” seal? Does it have to be an American birth certificate? Can it be reissued, or does it have to be the original? I’ve seen cruise passengers left at the dock, and they’ve lost their entire cruise, because of a disagreement about a birth certificate. A valid passport trumps everything. Repeat: Get a passport.

What about the expediting services, or the expedite option for passports?

You can pay an extra $60, and get your passport in two to three weeks. (Never mind the fact that it shouldn’t take that long to get a passport the regular way.) If you have a “life or death” emergency, and must travel within the next day or two, then you can appear in person at a passport agency, provide proof of your emergency, and get your travel documents. In addition, there are passport expediting services that charge you an additional fee, and guarantee a passport within 24 hours. It’ll cost a lot more than what the State Department charges for a passport, more than doubling the price of a new passport once fees are added.

What’s an entrance or exit fee?

Some countries charge a fee to either enter or exit the country. For example, Argentina requires Americans to pay a $160 “reciprocity fee” if you arrive by air. You don’t have to pay it if you cross by land. Sometimes the fees are rolled into your airline ticket, sometimes not. Sometimes you have to pay in dollars, sometimes in the local currency. Check the embassy site or the State Department site for details.

My passport is full. What should I do?

The United States allows passport holders to add extra pages in their passport if it’s full. Instead of applying for a new passport, you can add 24 extra pages a maximum of two times (for 48 pages total), for $82. You can add the pages outside the country, at an embassy or consulate, and it can take less than one hour to get it down. No new photo required.

I’ve met all my paperwork requirements but I’m not being allowed to board. What now?

This happens infrequently with airlines and is more common with cruises. When it does, the burden of proof is on you to persuade the agent telling you you can’t fly or sail, that they’re misinformed. On a cruise, the easiest way to avoid this situation is to get a passport instead of using your birth certificate as an ID. Birth certificates are problematic, for many reasons.

But even when everything is in order, you can still get hung up on issues like the expiration of your passport or even the requirements for the number of blank pages within the passport. It helps to know the passport and visa requirements. When you’re traveling somewhere exotic where the rules are more convoluted (any time a visa is required) you may want to travel with a printout of the country’s paperwork requirements printed from their website. Why? Well, airlines and cruise lines are held responsible for letting passengers board without the right documents, so they tend to err on the side of caution, even when they’re wrong. Basically, you need proof that you can travel, from an official source.

What if I’ve lost my passport?

If you’ve lost your passport while you’re traveling abroad, contact your nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. You can report your passport stolen by calling (877) 487-2778. You’ll need to fill out a Form DS-64, a statement regarding a lost or stolen passport. Then you’ll have to fill out yet another form to get a new passport, this time a DS-11, which is an application for a new passport. Note: once you’ve reported a passport missing or stolen, it won’t work. Ever again. So only report it if you’re sure it’s gone.

What if I’ve lost my driver’s license, visa or other important paperwork?

Replacing other important IDs and paperwork can vary based on where you live and where you’re visiting. It’s difficult to generalize, but one thing is certain: having a copy of the missing ID stored online makes it far easier to get it replaced, no matter where you are or what stage of the journey you’re at.

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