No, your baby can’t fly to Mexico without a passport

Aly Meyer spent months excitedly planning the perfect tropical getaway for ten members of her extended family. But when they tried to board their international flight to Mexico, the littlest member of the group was without a passport and the trip came to an abrupt halt. The baby was unable to fly to Mexico with just a passport card. 

Now Meyer wants the United States Postal Service to reimburse her for this lost vacation.

Like Meyer, you might be unfamiliar with the differences between a passport card and a passport book. But if your travel plans include an international trip, it’s critical to understand the prime distinction: A passport card can’t be used for an international flight.

A much-anticipated family vacation

“Coordinating the schedules of nine adults and one infant was no easy task. In August, we made a decision and booked our vacation to Mexico,” Meyer recalled. ” We then began the process of obtaining a passport for our infant daughter. We scheduled an appointment to meet with the passport specialist at our local post office.”

So far so good.

How did the baby end up at the airport without a passport?

Meyer says that when they arrived at her local post office for their passport appointment, this “specialist” told her that the baby didn’t need a passport. Instead, since they weren’t “traveling to Europe,” the employee suggested that she could travel with the less expensive passport card.

“We trusted her expertise because after all, she was the ‘passport specialist,’ and an employee of the U.S. Government,” Meyer explained. “We proceeded with completing the process of acquiring the card.”

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Once the passport card arrived, Meyer says that she made sure that the information was correct and then tucked it away with her own passport.

Mexico without a passport?

On the day of the trip, the group headed to the airport with anticipation. Initially, all went well — the family flew on a domestic flight from Grand Rapids to Chicago. The bad news came when they attempted to board their international flight — the baby could not fly to Mexico without a passport.

Meyer and her immediate family wouldn’t be enjoying an afternoon siesta on the beach that day — they were going back home.

Meyer contacted an attorney who told her that a lawsuit against the USPS would not be fruitful.

Then Meyer turned to our advocacy team. She wanted to know if we could force the USPS to reimburse the $6,000 that they lost in airfare and hotel fees.

Who is responsible for this missed trip?

If you are a regular reader of this site, then you know that it is always the traveler’s (or in this case, the traveler’s parents’) responsibility to know and possess the required documents for crossing international borders.

But this case did pose an interesting question: If the USPS employee told the family that the baby could fly to Mexico without a passport, should Meyer have been able to rely on that information?

According to the USPS website, the post office is a passport processing center, which will “forward your application to the State Department.” It makes no claim that its employees are passport specialists, as Meyer perceived.

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In fact, the passport application instructions explain that the passport application must be filled out by the applicant — but not signed — prior to arriving for the processing appointment. The post office employee does not assist in filling out the application; he or she simply acts as a witness to the signing of the form.

Uh-oh — a passport card isn’t valid for entry to Mexico via air

And that’s where it gets tricky for Meyer’s complaint against the USPS. The DS-11 US passport application that she completed has multiple warnings in the body of the application, in the instructions and directly under the passport card box that state:

The U.S. passport card is not valid for international air travel.

Further, the USPS site directs users to the U.S. State Department website for specific passport information and destination requirements.

There, under the heading Should I get a passport book or passport card? it reads:

Passport Books: International travel by air, sea, or land

Passport Cards: Entering the United States at land border crossings and sea ports-of-entry from: Canada, Mexico, The Caribbean and Bermuda

The passport card cannot be used for international air travel.

The passport card is Real ID compliant and can be used for domestic air travel.

Clearly, for the trip that Meyer had planned, every member of the family needed a passport — including the baby.

Explanation from the U.S. Post Office

For further clarification, I contacted the United States Postal Service Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Our executive contact reiterated that the passport card is never valid for international air travel. Although she could not specifically address Meyer’s experience, she confirmed that the USPS agents receive training in this basic information.

It is ultimately the responsibility of the consumer to determine what they need for their travels. We act as an agent for the State Department – we just process passport applications. In accepting the application, we make sure it’s filled out, signed, and with proper documentation. They should always check with the Department of State if there are any questions or concerns regarding passports or other proper documentation.

And with that, this case is delivered to the Case Dismissed box.

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When planning a trip abroad, it’s important to remember that the U.S. State Department is the final word on these matters — not the U.S. Post Office.

Should The U.S. Postal Service be held financially responsible for this missed vacation?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle is the executive director of Elliott.org. She is a consumer advocate, SEO-lady, writer and licensed clinical social worker who spends as much time as possible exploring the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Friedman Read more of Michelle's articles here.

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