This is what happens when your baby needs a passport, but you didn’t get one

All babies need passports to fly internationally.

Babies need passports to fly internationally just like their parents. Aly Meyer wishes someone had given her this information before her family showed up at the airport ready for their tropical vacation. That’s when an airline employee broke the news that her baby’s passport card was not valid for international air travel. As a result, instead of flying to Mexico the family headed right back home.

Now Meyer wants the United States Postal Service to reimburse her for this lost vacation. But is that where she should be placing the blame for the fiasco?

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Generali Global Assistance. Generali Global Assistance has been a leading provider of travel insurance and other assistance services for more than 25 years. We offer a full suite of innovative, vertically integrated travel insurance and emergency services. Generali Global Assistance is part of The Europ Assistance (EA) Group, who pioneered the travel assistance industry in 1963 and continues to be the leader in providing real-time assistance anywhere in the world, delivering on our motto – You Live, We Care.

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 is not valid for travel on an international flight.

Planning the baby’s first international 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. “The baby needed a passport. So we began the process of applying for her passport. We scheduled an appointment to meet with the passport specialist at our local post office.”

Meyer says that when they arrived at her local post office for their passport appointment, the “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 the application for the passport card for the baby.”

Once the baby’s passport card arrived, Meyer says that she made sure that all the information was correct. Then she tucked it away with her own passport.

Babies need passports, too

On the day of the trip, the group headed to the airport. Initially, all went well — the family flew on a domestic flight from Grand Rapids to Chicago. The bad news came when they attempted to check in for their international flight.  That’s when Meyer and her husband received the shocking news — their infant daughter needed a passport just like the rest of the group. The baby’s passport card could not be used for the flight to Mexico.

Suddenly, Meyer realized they wouldn’t be enjoying an afternoon siesta on the beach that day — they were going back home.

And once they arrived home, Meyer became convinced that the United State Postal Service owed her family for this lost vacation. She contacted an attorney who told her that a lawsuit against the USPS would not be possible.

Asking the Elliott Advocacy team for help

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

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 does not claim that its employees are passport specialists, as Meyer believed.

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

Babies need passports. Parents can complete the application and print it at home before they show up at the post office.
Fill out your baby’s passport application at home and then bring it to the post office for processing

A passport card isn’t ever valid for international air travel

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 warn that the passport card is not valid for international air travel.

The U.S. Passport application warns that the passport card is not valid for international air travel.
The U.S. Passport card is not valid for international air travel.

Additionally, 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.

The U.S. Post Office explains

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.

The bottom line

When traveling, if you need a passport so does your baby. If you’re flying internationally you’ll need a passport. And remember, 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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43 thoughts on “This is what happens when your baby needs a passport, but you didn’t get one

  1. Does Chicago have expedited passport processing? I wonder if they could have prevailed upon the airline to book them on a flight the next day and gone to get one? How awful to lose so much money, but they really shouldn’t have taken the word of some employee over the many warnings on the form 🙁

    1. There’s a CBP office on the lower level of the international terminal at O’Hare. Unless they were flying out of Midway they were literally right there, and could at least have gone downstairs to see what could be done.

  2. I can only assume that the ten “yes” votes are all the ten members of Meyer’s family mentioned in the article!

    Sorry…while I feel bad that they missed their vacation and lost their money, I cannot for the life of me fathom trusting a postal employee to advise them on documentation needs for international travel. There is this thing called “Google”.

    In fact just out of curiosity, I entered “does a baby need a passport to go to Mexico” (which auto-filled almost immediately, indicating LOTS of other people have entered this same question). And here’s what popped up right at the top – not a website, but the text at the top of the list of links:

    “Yes. Every U.S. citizen — including infants — needs a valid passport to enter and leave most foreign countries. The U.S. Department of State issues passports. … If your child has two parents or legal guardians, both must be present to sign the passport application.”

    They messed up big-time. Hard (and expensive) lesson.

    1. I think the bigger source of confusion, which affects a lot of people, is not whether a passport is needed, but whether the “passport card” is a valid option. By giving it the name passport card, many people don’t realize that it is not a full passport and can’t be used for air travel to anywhere.

      This is a real source of confusion. While the website is clear, https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/passports/apply-renew-passport/card.html, lots of unfamiliar travelers make this mistake.

      1. Yes, that can be confusing if you don’t do any research. But that doesn’t change my opinion that people need to educate themselves about documentation needs for international travel. And not to rely on the word of a postal clerk.

        A 4-second Google search on “Is a passport card the same as a passport” turned up this answer:

        “The most important difference between U.S. passport books and passport cards is that passport cards are not valid for international air travel; they’re only acceptable for land and sea border crossings between the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean.”

        So really, there just is no excuse.

      2. I can agree, to a point. However, it is incumbent on people to read and understand. Too many don’t. They gloss over parts or just do not read everything. Thn, they want to blame someone/something else for their woes. They have to take responsibility for themselves.

    2. Morally it would be great if LW could sue USPS for giving out wrong information, but IRS employees do this all the time and enjoy sovereign immunity from suits for bad information. I’m sure that USPS enjoys similar immunity.

      1. Well, if an IRS employee gives you bad information, the penalties and interest are waived, so I’m not sure what you’d sue over.

  3. The warnings/instructions should have made it obvious. I have, however, run into people who think that travel to the other countries in North America is not international travel. Why they should think that I have no idea, but there it is. She still ought not to expect compensation from the post office. An expedited (and very expensive) passport would have been the thing to do.

    1. That is exactly my thought. Perhaps this woman didn’t consider Mexico international. Or perhaps the postal employee – if they really told her to apply for the passport card – didn’t understand that.

      Regardless the application clearly states this in more than one place.

    2. That was a thought that I had but then if that were the case in this situation (not thinking it was “international travel”), why get passports for other family members?

      If the USPS person did actually say it wasn’t necessary because they were not going to “Europe” (which is just incredible if that was really said) – then why get passports for everyone else?

      Something doesn’t quite add up and it is a shame so much money was lost but….

      1. They might still get passports as travel ID, especially with the various articles that have appeared suggesting that, at any time, your driver’s license may not be considered sufficient for air travel if it’s not “Real ID” compliant. Never mind that there’s no real time line for compliance, since the states keep not complying, and the government keeps extending the deadline, some people may not realize that. And they’d need an ID for the baby anyway, since she’s too young to have any type of state ID.

        What it comes to is, people hear what they want to hear, and let the rest slide.

    3. Those folks are right up there with the yahoos who complained about Puerto Rican “immigrants” coming stateside after the hurricane, not realizing they were US citizens.

  4. What bothers me is the statement in the article that:

    “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.”

    Right there is admission that the USPS employee should have known better. This proves that SOME of the responsibility falls on this employee. Obviously not 100%, as warnings were everywhere (and Google is your friend), but certainly something.

    1. It was stated on the form that the parent signed. Parent is 100% responsible. I learned years ago not to take anyone’s verbal word. I learned to make sure to read things that I sign. That is the actual reason to have someone sign it, so that you know they agree to what’s above it….

    2. I completely disagree that the postal clerk is even 1% “responsible”. She might be responsible for not doing her job well…but the parents were 100% responsible for ensuring that their child had appropriate documentation for international travel, and they didn’t do that.

      The postal clerk should have done her job better, but the parents should have relied on a valid and reliable source of information. The information is widely available from appropriate sources, which they apparently didn’t bother to check.

      Another twist: do any of us know whether or not they told the postal clerk that they were traveling to Mexico by plane? The article doesn’t make that clear. Passport cards are valid for travel by land or sea, so if they didn’t make their means of transportation clear to the postal clerk, that could be why they were given incorrect information. Which, again, falls on their lap.

      I’m sorry this happened, and I’m sure it was a tough lesson. They will know better next time.

    3. Again, we only have LW’s word that the USPS employee gave her that information. Since the form must be filled out completely except for the signature before arrival at the post office, I’m simply not buying her version of events.

  5. Could be the Postal employee mentioned that the passport card was valid for travel to Mexico if they were driving and that it costs a lot less than an actual passport. And the OP missed the driving part.

    But I really don’t see the usefulness of the passport card anyway. Might as well get a real passport.

    1. A passport card is actually quite useful for the many cases where a passport is needed for NON-TRAVEL purposes. For example, buying train passes, SIMs, hotel ID (eg Italy), etc. In Europe I have never had a problem using the card in places where a passport was required. It is also valid government ID and may be accepted in cases where a drivers license is not. A big advantage is you can carry the card in your wallet and leave your passport book safely at your hotel. That way you always have the card with you when unexpected needs pop-up.

      One important trick… do not get your card at the same time as the passport book. If you do that they will both have the same number and if one is lost or stolen, the other immediately becomes invalid. If you get the card separately it will have its own distinct number and will remain valid even if your passport book is stolen.

      1. or for those of us who cross to Canada all the time (I have a passport, but some of my friends do not, and this works just fin)

    2. Passport cards are especially valuable to those who cross borders frequently via car.

      The OP is in Michigan so while driving to Canada sounds reasonable, driving to Mexico usually isn’t.

      1. I understand that. My comment should have been “But I really don’t see the usefulness of the passport card to me anyway” since I would not drive out of the country and would rather fly.

    1. Not everyone travels all the time. You learn these things as you travel. This family will never make this mistake again!

    2. We all learn the importance of verifying information through some bad experience in life. Unfortunately, the OP learned her lesson at a big expense, though it seems bailing on the vacation was an extreme response.

  6. I wanted to know if the rest of the family went on the vacation? I would think that other family members could continue on the trip so the biggest part of the $6000 was not wasted.

  7. I have little sympathy for adults who did not bother to read a form they signed in front of a witness. And what little sympathy I have is further diminished by their placing the blame completely on the USPS. The information was clearly written on the form and the OP chose to ignore it and rely on information she claims she was given by a USPS employee. Chris and the other advocates regularly remind us to read forms that we are signing. The OP chose not too and learned a very expensive lesson.

  8. Two questions. One possible solution.

    Did our OP actually tell the Post Office employee that they were flying to Mexico or was an assumption made that they would be driving? Did the employee tell OP that they could drive to Mexico with the Passport Card and the OP assumed that flying would be OK, also?

    Eight of the party should have taken the original flight. One adult and the baby should have cancelled and used any credit (plus additional “walk-up” fare changes) to fly to San Diego, Laredo or anywhere near the Mexican border and taken land transportation to Mexico. The land transportation might have been able to get them to their destination or they could have caught a flight within Mexico to their resort. It would have cost a whole lot less than the $6,000 they lost for cancelling.

    1. I was thinking similar. Get an expedited passport (OP was in Chicago and could do that) or figure out a Plan B like you mentioned. They chose to take the loss and bail on the trip.

  9. Had she used a TRAVEL AGENT, this would NOT have happened … unless, of course, she chose to ignore the travel agent’s advice, which consumers have been known to do … every person with access to the internet believes he/she knows more about travel planning AND travel regulations than travel agents do.

  10. Good grief, why would you cancel everyone on the trip and lose $6000 ?…….Just forfeit for yourself and the baby or go to a passport office and get it expedited in a day or two and then rebook you and the baby (even if you arrive two days later) – a whole lot less cost than $6000.

  11. There is no mention how she booked this – with an OTA or directly with an airline online??…….and did she even mention she was traveling with an infant (whoever she booked it with) because if she did, someone would have had to issue a ticket for the infant and advise that the infant needed a passport (though I have my doubts about an OTA giving out correct information).

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