Delta told us we needed passports for Puerto Rico — is that true?

Stephanie Merck is told she needs a passport to fly to Puerto Rico. It’s not true. Who should pay for the passport?

Question: I wanted to let you know about an interesting situation we encountered while booking a trip to Puerto Rico.

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When I went to purchase airline tickets for my husband, my 3-year-old son and myself, I spoke with the U.S. State Department via phone and email about passport requirements to fly from Atlanta to San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was told that no passport was required.

But three different Delta Air Lines agents told us that passports are required to fly to Puerto Rico. They also told us that they do not consider it part of the U.S. So we spent the money for a rush passport for our son. We are currently at the airport, and my son’s passport was not required. This is very confusing, and I feel like we wasted money on the rush passport. What is going on? — Stephanie Merck, Alpharetta, Georgia

Answer: The State Department is right, and Delta is wrong. If you’re a U.S. citizen, you don’t need a passport to enter Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. commonwealth. The strange thing about this case is that it wasn’t just one Delta representative, but three, who gave you incorrect information that your son needed a passport.

It’s not clear where Delta is getting its information, but I know that back in 2012, a number of press reports indicated that you needed a passport. The State Department had to issue a rare clarification noting that passports were not required.

But don’t be too mad at Delta. This is one of those times when bad advice leads to a good outcome. Most Americans don’t have a passport, but they should. If you’d wanted to take a day trip to another island or a vacation in Europe next summer, you’d need that passport. So this wasn’t necessarily money misspent.

I might have sent a brief, polite email to Delta asking for clarification in writing. (Here are a few contacts.) That would have forced the airline to offer a more thoughtful written response, and perhaps one it would have researched.

There’s no provision in Delta’s terms and conditions, or in its contract of carriage, for covering the cost of your son’s passport. But you would hope that the airline would take responsibility for inaccurate information it gave you on three separate occasions.

I contacted Delta on your behalf. It responded to you with an apology and agreed to reimburse you the $270 you spent for your son’s rush-order passport.

35 thoughts on “Delta told us we needed passports for Puerto Rico — is that true?

  1. That was a good outcome. I hope that Delta has also agreed to train their employees so that this does not happen again, I am sure it caused a lot of inconvenience and stress.

    1. To be fair, according to the story Delta said a passport was required to go to Puerto Rico. They did not say it was not part of the US. Since airlines can be fined for transporting people to places where they are refused entry, they are very careful. In this case, too careful. Of course, it is also possible one or more of the three did not know Puerto Rico is part of the US, but we will never know that for sure.

      1. Thing is, under the constitution, all citizens have the right to travel throughout all parts of the United States (unless you’re on the no-fly list). These agents need a serious lesson, not just in Delta policy. but the constitution.

      2. Sorry @Ricgarddll – hair splitting. It is exactly what Delta said indeed — and the only conclussion from that is that Peurto Rico is a foreign land.
        Is it possible that they did not know Peurto Rico is not a foreing country? I think NOT – otherwise they would have notified Delta website writers to remove the obvious error.

    2. According to Political Geography Now:
      So is Puerto Rico part of the U.S.?
      Technically, Puerto Rico isn’t
      considered to be a part of the U.S. (though certain laws treat it as if
      it were). Instead, it belongs to the U.S. as an “unincorporated”
      territory. Unincorporated territories of the U.S. are places where the country’s
      constitution does not apply by default, except for in the case of certain “fundamental rights” owed to all Americans. It is also possible
      for a territory to be “incorporated” as part of the country, but this status rarely applies today.

          1. Well, actually NEW Mexico does have a problem. The federal government has denied New Mexico an extension from tougher federal requirements for state driver’s licenses and ID cards.
            The decision means New Mexico driver’s licenses will no longer be accepted at federal facilities like Kirtland Air Force Base starting Jan. 10. And eventually, state IDs won’t be allowed to board commercial flights.

  2. There was no excuse for three separate employees to screw this up.

    Personally, if I was Delta, I would have thrown vouchers at this… after all their child does now have a passport, which is a good idea in general. Kudos for actually issuing cash.

  3. Many Americans and US organizations have challenges with geography. Examples I remember: Hawaii is a different country requiring international postal rates to mail things there. Likewise New Mexico. Mail addressed to me in Ireland passed through Haiti first. Mail addressed to me in Ireland passed through Italy first. While I was living and working in Penang, Malaysia, my employer sent my W-2 to Penang, China. People thinking Singapore is in China. Two middle-aged sales people who surely studied geography in elementary school thought that Shanghai is in Japan. The Hertz car rental clerk in Boston who had no knowledge of the major highways around the city though he lived there his entire live. The mind boggles.

  4. At least this was a pre-travel inquiry. Has Delta ever turned away travelers at the airport because they “don’t have a visa for Puerto Rico?”

    1. NO – but she spoke with res agents on the phone, and they pull up a timatic, which shows Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, and it states passports needed — sigh – sad that most people in the US never take a geography class and understand the difference. Those gate agents at the airport do know better

  5. Preferred form of identification for US Virgin Islands is a passport, although they will (grudgingly) accept a driver’s license.

  6. “If you’re a U.S. citizen, you don’t need a passport to enter Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. commonwealth.”

    This does not turn on citizenship, it turns on where you’re arriving from.

    A non-citizen flying from the mainland US to Puerto Rico does not need a passport to enter, either, it is a domestic flight.

    A US citizen flying from another country to Puerto Rico does need a passport [well, there are complicated procedures for a US citizen arriving without a passport] because they will proceed through immigration formalities.

    Just want to make sure to correct inaccurate advice given.

  7. Delta’s T&C is not the law of this country. Private individual T&C is just as good. Enforcement is either through the courts or through reasoning or through shaming in the media.
    Excellent outcome. Congratulations to Delta decider for doing the right thing. But better yet did anyone receive an indication that Delta will retrain employees or provide them with a link to the State Department? Who are these agents and did they pass any civic classes? or are they just green card or work permit holders or total off-shore foreigners from Hula Gula Island who cannot be expected to know that PR is part of USA commonwealth.

  8. Why did she ask Delta when she already knew the answer and trusted the airline more than the US government that gave her the correct answer?

  9. Exactly – why one should not be critical of Delta staff on this issue? Isn’t it Delta staff that gave false information three times. Isn’t it Delta staff that at least approved its website content? Isn’t Delta staff that did not raise a red flag seeing this garbage information on their computers – if they ever looked at it?

  10. Well done, Chris! On a side note, cruise line employees often give conflicting advice whether US citizens need a passport when taking cruise departing from and returning to San Juan.

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