Elgy Gillespie was on her way to the airport when she lost her passport. No problem, she thought. Having recently read an article that suggested she could fly with just a library card, she was confident that she could talk her way onboard her international flight. But when a Norwegian Air Shuttle agent unequivocally denied her boarding without a passport, she was stunned by his lack of understanding.
Now she wants the Elliott Advocacy team to intervene. Can we?
Gillespie’s story serves as a warning not to believe everything you read online. It also is a reminder of the importance of ensuring that all of your required travel documents are firmly in hand before stepping up to the airport check-in counter.
Where did my passport go?
Gillespie was heading to a family wedding in Ireland when calamity struck.
I set off in great excitement for Oakland Airport on BART with a new wheelie— a four-wheel “spinner” — and a tote containing tickets, passport, neck pillow, book, cash, etc. As I got to the sky train, I stopped to chat to another passenger in the throng. The spinner ran away to the tracks. I dashed to retrieve it — then turned to find my tote had vanished. The “Oh, no!” shock was numbing. I almost screamed (but didn’t).
My tickets were all downloaded inside my phone. I had already furnished Norwegian with all the data from my passport. So I felt I could talk myself on board.
Talk her way on board an international flight without a passport??
Fact: You need a passport to fly internationally
It’s not often that we receive requests for help that seem completely out of line with what some might call common sense.
But I was beginning to think this was one of those cases.
If you are a regular reader of our site, you already know what happened at the airport. Gillespie was not able to talk herself onboard her international flight without the necessary passport.
Though, Gillespie says that the grinning Norwegian Air Shuttle supervisor’s response to her request shocked and offended her. He explained that she couldn’t fly to Ireland without a passport.
“He smilingly said there was absolutely no way I could board,” she recalled. “This, despite the ticket scans and my passport being recorded online. I have since learned that he could have assisted me by contacting TSA to help me. TSA could find alternative ID verification.”
Dejected, she headed home. Her next step was to contact the Elliott Advocacy team to see if we could intervene with Norwegian. She wanted the airline to admit its mistake and issue her a new ticket.
When I attempted to explain to Gillespie that it is impossible to fly from the United States without a passport to Ireland, she would hear none of it.
Gillespie advised me that I was as ill-informed as Norwegian Air Shuttle and that the TSA has “all sorts of ways” to allow travelers to fly without a passport. She forwarded an excerpt from a story that was published online by Conde Nast Traveler. Amazingly, this article did seem to be suggesting a lost passport may not prevent you from traveling internationally.
Fact: You can’t fly to Ireland using a library card as ID
The excerpt from the article that Gillespie was referencing read:
For those looking to travel internationally without a passport, note that you may hit some snags at immigration, as it is up to the receiving country to decide if it will let you in without a passport. Regardless of where they’re heading, travelers attempting to fly without an ID should factor in at least an extra hour to check in.
Uh, yes, let’s be clear: Any traveler looking to travel internationally without a passport will most certainly hit a “snag” — a big snag, as Gillespie found out.
It is not possible to fly internationally without a passport.
Further, the article stated that the TSA could verify a traveler’s identity through various means. “Hello, library card,” it said.
I assured Gillespie that no airline would accept a library card as sufficient documentation to fly internationally. And since the TSA has very little to do with customs and immigration, I suggested that the article’s primary intention may have been to discuss domestic air travel.
Fact: You can’t fly internationally without a passport
The U.S. State Department is the resource that travelers should use to understand international travel requirements. This site will give you a variety of current information about your intended destination, including travel warnings, documents needed for entry, health concerns and other valuable fact-based data.
A quick check of the State Department’s information page about Ireland confirms the entry requirements for U.S. citizens. It comes as no surprise: US citizens can’t enter without a passport.
Airlines must check a traveler’s documents before boarding — they have a vested interest to do so. They can be heavily fined for delivering a passenger to a foreign country without the required entry documents.
And even if Gillespie had somehow “talked” her way onboard her Norwegian flight, once she landed in Ireland, she would have had no documents to permit her entry. Immigration officers in Ireland would have prevented her from entering the country — just like what has happened to others before her:
The job of foreign immigration officers is to protect the borders of their country. So we can only imagine those agents’ reactions if a traveler showed up at the customs window and presented their library card for stamping.
Unfortunately, there is no way to get Gillespie’s money back. But we’ll continue to warn our readers about the critical need to check those travel requirements before heading to the airport. If you don’t, you could find yourself on a disappointing round trip journey right back home where you started — no vacation included.
Correct Documentation to fly internationally checklist
Before you head to the airport for your next international flight, make sure you have all of the required travel documentation. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Is my passport valid?
Remember, the expiration date on your passport is not the primary indicator of whether it is valid for travel. Many foreign destinations require travelers to have 3-6 months of validity beyond the date of their departure from that country. Make sure to visit the Department of State’s website well in advance of your trip to verify that your passport will qualify.
- Do I need a visa?
It’s critical for travelers to be aware that many countries require a pre-approved visa for entry. We’ve seen many a devastated traveler end up missing entire vacations because of a visa oversight. (See: This is how they got removed from their cruise, no refund included). If you don’t want the same type of fate, ensure you’ve applied for and received approval for any necessary visas long before the date of travel. You can typically get all the information you need about entry requirements from the U.S. State Department’s website or the consulate of the country to which you’re traveling. An invaluable tool every traveler should bookmark is the International Airport Transit Association’s (IATA) travelers’ documentation tool. Using this website, the passenger adds their personalized information to check all of the entry requirements to their intended destination.
- Is a health certificate necessary?
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, more and more countries require certified negative coronavirus tests to board flights. These requirements will become more widespread as travel begins to resume. Most countries maintain an online consulate that will detail any health-related documentation required for visitors. Travelers should avail themselves of that resource. The IATA’s “Know before you go” tool is also being constantly updated to reflect the current coronavirus entry requirements worldwide.
- Are there special requirements for any transit countries on my itinerary?
It’s vital not to overlook the countries which you will transit through during your travels. Unfortunately, many passengers have been thrown for a loop when they show up for check-in to one destination and find out they don’t have the required documentation to transit through a location on their itinerary. Don’t forget to check the documentation requirements for all parts of your itinerary — otherwise, you may not be traveling at all. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott Advocacy)