Can you really fly internationally with just a library card?

Fly internationally with a library card. Without a passport?

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?

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners. Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

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.

Lost passport problems

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.

Don’t believe everything you read online

If you are a regular reader of our site, then you already know what happened at the airport.

Gillespie, though, says that she was shocked and offended when a grinning Norwegian Air Shuttle supervisor told her that it was impossible for her to 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 Norwegian had handled her situation correctly, 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 ID. 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.

“Hello, library card!”

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 a variety of means. “Hello, library card,” it said.

I assured Gillespie that a library card would never be sufficient documentation to enter a foreign country. 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.

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 are expected to check a traveler’s documents before boarding. And 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. She would have been detained at immigration and returned to the U.S. on the next flight — just like others before her:

Foreign immigration officers are charged with protecting the borders of their country. We can only imagine the reaction of those agents if a traveler showed up to 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.

54 thoughts on “Can you really fly internationally with just a library card?

  1. Yeah, there’s a huge difference between “having enough to get past TSA” (for which a library card will usually work) and “having enough to get a country’s immigration service to let you in.”

    1. TSA can theoretically take you aside and look up your information in public databases. However, that’s to match your name to that on your boarding pass.

      An airline isn’t going to allow someone to board that way. They want to see a passport, visa, and/or permanent residence document.

        1. TSA (and the occasional private security operator) aren’t really interested in whether or not someone will be turned back at an international destination. Their ID requirements are solely to match the name on the ID to the name on the boarding pass. I’ve gone on international flights where I used something other than my passport at the security line.

          And where they check your ID seems to vary now. I remember a time when one had to go to the terminal counter to present valid travel documents in order to get a boarding pass. These days one can do online check-in for international flights and either present the document information online or present them at the gate to get the boarding pass endorsed.

  2. Ah, life’s rich tapestry at work. It most certainly is true that the TSA will take just about anything with your name on it after some additional paperwork. But since the airline doesn’t want to put you on the next plane home at their expense, they are a little reluctant to let you board.

    1. Not to mention the real possibility of a huge fine being levied against the airline by the government for allowing someone to enter their country without proper documentation.

      1. I thought this was an early April Fool story so I googled her like you and was surprised that she was a much-traveled writer of travel guides…

      2. O_O

        And she still put important travel documents like her bleeding passport into a tote and not something she kept on her body at all times while traveling?!?

        I have a quick question for the travel insurance crowd: would insurance have covered her for not being able to fly due to her documents being stolen?

      3. This scares the pants off me…someone is actually publishing travel guides from a woman who thinks she can talk her way onto a plane without a passport?!

        1. In some countries it is totally impossible to buy a train of bus ticket w/out showing a passport, or a valid ID for locals…mindbogglingly to say the least what this woman was trying to do.

    1. I wonder, had they actually let her board, and she got to Ireland, THEN turned away and sent home (after a fun little detainment), would she STILL expect the airline to pony up for her expenses and inconveniences?? Personal Responsibility = 0.

  3. There are some travel insurance companies that cover theft of cash, tickets, passports, etc up to a defined amount on their policy options. Please be advise that payout will depend on the circumstances under which the cash, tickets, passports, etc. was stolen as well as the insurer’s terms and conditions. For example, that it was stolen from your possession by force, it will be covered. It’s unlikely to be covered if it was left unsupervised in a public place like the OP did in this situation.

    Also, if the OP had renter insurance or homeowner insurance, this loss could be covered minus the deductible. Again, it could NOT be covered since the OP left the item in a public place.

    1. Stupidity is a covered event as far as home and auto insurance is concerned. Idiots who leave their cars running outside of convenience stores and return to the parking lot to find the car stolen are covered under the comprehensive portion of their auto policy. That she left her bag in a public space has no bearing on the claim. The fact is that the bag was stolen, and that is a covered event.

      1. Thank you, Jenny and Arizona, for answering my question. I hadn’t thought about the possibility of homeowner’s insurance possibly covering the loss. Good info!

        1. I think we have to separate the value of the lost items (passport, etc.), and the “secondary losses (cost of the flight). I expect that homeowner’s insurance would be far more likely to cover the actual value of the lost items (less any deductible), than the secondary losses ( flight cost, pain & suffering, etc.).

  4. Oh, brother. Putting aside the amazing assumption of even attempting to do such a thing, the OP taking as gospel info from a travel magazine vs. official agencies is also pretty…amazing.

  5. As a librarian, I have to say I got a kick out of this. While I believe in the power of a library card, international travel would be a first.

  6. I do have to say that Conde Nast traveler should be ashamed of themselves for publishing that article that asserts you can fly international sans passport. (But if the OP thinks that article is the Last Word on the matter, she is more than welcome to enlist her for assistance.)

    While ID-less flying may be possible for domestic travel, or intra-Schengen travel in Europe, I don’t think it’s true for any flight in the world with Passport Control. There won’t be “some snags” getting into your destination country, because no airline in the world is going to let you board to begin with unless they make a colossal mistake. (There are some (rare) emergency exceptions for citizens returning home, but not those travelling somewhere else.) I know every time I take an international flight, I can’t get on that plane unless there’s a big ‘ol DOCS OK somewhere on by boarding pass and/or one of those stickers on the back of my passport. (This can be confusing for people making international connections; you are just supposed to know that you need to approach the gate agent to have your documentation verified before boarding.)

    Rule of Thumb: If you travel internationally at all, always have six months left on your passport, and keep it on your person at least until you clear customs at your destination. Do NOT ever put it in luggage or in any sort of bag left unattended. Make sure you have copies of your passport on your phone AND in your luggage.

    1. I had a weird case decades ago when I was a child. I won’t go into the exact details, but I’ll just say a critical document that I needed to get home was stolen along with my mom’s wallet. The airline actually let me board the plane, but my parents had to sign an acknowledgement that should I not be allowed in that they would be responsible for the costs of return airfare.

      This was well before secure electronic communications around the world were available. It was also a place without diplomatic relations with the United States. I was told that an organization affiliated with the State Dept might be able to issue me a temporary return document if they could verify my status via telegram, and that it might take over a week.

  7. Amazing that this person thought she could travel internationally without a passport.
    I see people turned away at cruise ships all the time for incorrect/missing paperwork. Sad.

  8. This story provided a much needed laugh for me. Hope to see more like this for some levity.

    On a side note, still waiting for someone to claim that she has a right to compensation under EU 261. 🙂

  9. If an airline flies you to a country and you are denied entry due to docs – i.e. no/expired passport or visa, not only is the airline responsible for “deporting” you back to your home country at their own expense, but many times they also face a fine to try to deter bad behavior and ensure checks are done prior to departure (hence the DOCS – OK) that prints on boarding pass or verification message. No chance airline lets you fly without it.

    TSA may let you through a checkpoint without proper ID. They can check more databases and give thorough screening. But TSA security in the USA is not in anyway the same as Cusoms and Immigration in XXX Country. And sadly, adding your passport info into your reservation is not sufficient – they can’t be inspected, stamped, or verified in the same way.

  10. So some ‘misinformed’ arrogant traveler wishes to cite an article to both an airline rep & a consumer advocate site, whiskey-tango-foxtrot??? She should start her own travel website to dispense such sage advice to the even less informed…

  11. I’ve noticed several comments mention how you can get passed TSA with almost anything to satisfy an ID. But I’ve heard about this “Real ID” being needed for travel, primarily because my state, PA, doesn’t have one yet and has to keep getting extensions. So how can a library card be good enough to fly, even domestically?

  12. Common sense should have prevailed…………..she could have taken her carry on with her when she retrieved her bag………………bag / passport………..not important ???………………next …….. a library card ???………….she must have read ‘Gullible’s Travels”…………..then she gives her real name for this article ?………..WOW !!

      1. I believe that the original quote was “the problem with common sense……is that it is not so common”……………………….but you got my point

  13. Is this for real? Who doesn’t know you need a passport for entry to a foreign country? Especially in these days of heightened security, it’s scary to think anyone would be able to talk her way past TSA! And that article in Conde Nast Traveler–were there ever any repercussions, corrections, whatever? Very irresponsible of them.

  14. Who the heck was the writer of the article? What irresponsible reporting!

    I think his consumer should report her experience to the writer of that story and CondeNast for publishing it and let them know she relied on that story to not only chastise the airline but YOU for being the bearer of truth.

  15. How ridiculous she thought a library card would suffice. EVERYONE knows you need at least a printout from! ;)~

  16. Although it is unfortunate that this traveler had their plans altered, I find this story hilarious! She’s trying to school Team Elliott based on ignorance and the internet. I’m glad she’s holding up the crazy corner of the tent so the rest of us don’t have to. Some lessons are more expensive than others, and some souls (bless their hearts) go on to repeat the course, where the tuition may be more than with their first attendance.

  17. Flying international w/ out a valid passport? I don’t think so. I’m really questioning if she ever had a passport to begin with. Just as a general info. In some countries you can’t even buy a bus or train ticket any more w/out a passport, be that in person or on the internet.

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