The smart traveler’s guide to passports, visas and IDs

Here's your passport and visa guide for international travel.

Looking for a guide to passport, visa and other identification requirements for travel abroad? Great! Here it is.

No matter where you go or how you get there, you’ll probably have to show some form of ID, passport, or visa at some point. Being prepared with the right paperwork can mean the difference between going places and being forced to turn around and go home — or worse, spending the night in a detention cell while you wait to be deported. That happens more often than you think. Keep reading if you want to make sure it doesn’t happen to you.

Paperwork requirements have changed dramatically in the last year. The COVID-19 pandemic added another layer of bureaucracy to the process. You now need a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination for some forms of travel. No test results, no travel.

What are the paperwork requirements during the pandemic?

If you’re crossing a border or flying between now and the end of the pandemic — whenever that is — you’ll need several forms of ID:

Yellow Card. The Yellow Card, or Carte Jaune, is a medical passport issued by the World Health Organization. It’s an official record that some countries require for entrance, documenting everything from cholera to rubella vaccinations. You can get your COVID-19 shot documented on your Yellow Card, and it will act as a de facto vaccine passport.

The COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card. You’ll get one when you receive your first shot. It’s a white slip of paper where both of your COVID-19 vaccines can be recorded. You can slip this record into your passport and show it as evidence of your vaccination.

A negative COVID-19 test result. Unlike the vaccine certification, there’s a time limit on these tests. For example, the Centers for Disease Control requires passengers traveling to the U.S. from a foreign country to get tested no more than three days before their flight departs and to present the negative result or documentation of having recovered from COVID-19 to the airline before boarding the flight.

The rules can change frequently (and they often do). They are in addition to the other paperwork requirements that we’ll review in a moment.

What other paperwork do you need?

Identification

What it is: An identity document (ID) is any document that may be used to verify your identity. Most acceptable forms of ID are photo IDs issued by a state or federal government. A negative COVID-19 test result.

When you need it: A drivers’ license is mandatory if you’re planning to drive. You may also need an ID if you’re staying at a hotel, renting a car, or catching a train, to confirm your identity.

When you don’t need it: Strictly speaking, an ID is not required to move from point A to point B or to cross state lines in the United States.

Note: Several U.S. states are testing app-based digital drivers licenses, and there’s talk that your passport may go digital at some point. That would be interesting. Until then, you may at least consider taking a photo of your ID and passport and storing it in the cloud, just as backup.

Visa

What it is: A visa (not to be confused with the credit card) is a passport endorsement that allows you to enter, leave, or stay for a specified period of time in a foreign country.

When you need it: If you’re visiting a country with a visa requirement. You may also need a special kind of visa called a transit visa if you’re stopping in a country on your way to another one.

When you don’t need it: If you’re traveling to a country with a visa waiver, including frequently visited European countries, such as the U.K., France and Italy.

Passport

What it is: A government document that certifies your nationality and identity for the purpose of international travel. Roughly 42 percent of Americans have a passport.

When you need it: Almost any time you cross a border.

When you don’t need it: When traveling domestically, and when taking a “closed loop” cruise, which is defined as a cruise beginning and ending in the U.S. (more information on “closed loop” cruises in a minute).

Note: When entering Canada or Mexico at land border crossings, or Bermuda and Caribbean nations at seaports of entry, you can use the less expensive U.S. Passport Card.

Should I get a passport or a passport card?

A US Passport Card sure looks like an attractive alternative to a more expensive US Passport. For just $30, versus $110, you can get a handy card that lets you into the most popular international destinations, including Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. But not so fast. First, the passport card can’t be used for international travel by air. So it’s more limited than it appears to be, and as a practical matter it’s only good for people who make frequent road trips to Canada or Mexico, or who sail to the Caribbean. If you miss the boat because you had too much fun in a Caribbean port of call, and want to fly home, a passport card won’t work. Bottom line: If you do any kind of international travel, you’ll probably want a regular passport.

Who’s responsible for having the right identification to travel?

The short answer is: You, and you alone. It doesn’t matter what a travel agent, cruise line, tour operator, or airline says. If you don’t have the right ID, passport, or entry or transit visa, you can’t go back to them and ask for a refund because they gave you the incorrect information. Nor should you rely on anyone but an official government source for accurate and up-to-date information on your paperwork requirements. Please do not depend on any third party for this type of information. Repeat: Please don’t take anyone’s word for it.

Where can I find reliable information about my passport, visa, or ID requirements?

The US State Department. The State Department, the government agency that deals with foreign affairs, has a website (https://travel.state.gov/content/travel.html) that is widely regarded as the final authority on paperwork requirements for Americans going overseas. It’s also a useful resource for information about security status and the political climate in foreign countries.

A foreign embassy or consulate. The embassy of a country you intend to visit also has authoritative information on visa and passport requirements. If you’re applying for a visa, you will need to do so through an embassy or consulate. Note: There should not be any conflict between the information on the State Department site and the requirements of an embassy, but in the unlikely event that there is, you should try to meet both requirements. That’s because American customs officials will be looking to meet their requirements when you cross the border, while officials from the other country will be looking to meet theirs.

IATA’s Timatic site. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) publishes all passport and health requirements on a single site called Timatic. Although it’s not an official site, many airlines use Timatic as the final arbiter in a visa or passport question.

How do I get a visa?

It depends where you’re visiting. For most countries, you can apply for a visa at any of their foreign embassies. Some countries require that you apply at their embassy in your country. Most visas can be processed by mail; you’ll need to send your passport to the embassy to receive your visa. The less touristy a destination, the more complex the process tends to be. If you’re traveling somewhere exotic, you might want to use a visa service to make sure the process goes smoothly and the paperwork is valid.

What’s a transit visa? Do I need one?

Some countries allow for short transit visas, which let you stay in a country for a few days without applying for a regular visa. In order to get one, you have to show proof of an onward ticket. For example, you can get a 72-hour transit visa for Russia if you arrive in St. Petersburg by ship. Again, check with the embassy of any country you’ll be passing through, even if it’s just between flights.

Do I need anything else for my visa?

Maybe. Some countries, notably in Africa, require proof of a yellow fever vaccination. If you visit these countries, you need to have the document with you when you enter. For a complete list of health requirements, consult the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention page on health and visas.

How do I cut the line at the border?

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Trusted Traveler Program may allow you to cut in line when you’re crossing the border. Its various programs offer expedited travel for preapproved, low-risk travelers through dedicated lanes and kiosks. The programs include Global Entry, a program that allows expedited clearance upon arrival in the United States, NEXUS, which allows you to use a fast lane at the Canadian border, and SENTRI, which lets you cut the line when you’re entering or leaving Mexico. You can find more information on applying for these programs on the CBP site.

Do you need an international driver’s license?

There is no such thing as an international driver’s license. But you may need an International Driving Permit (IDP), which costs $20 from AAA. It’s a translation of your American drivers license. Generally, the permit is unnecessary unless you’re traveling somewhere fairly exotic that uses a non-Roman alphabet (Russia, Greece). The IDP helps authorities in those countries decipher your license. You probably won’t need an IDP to rent a car, but if you get into an accident, your insurance company may — even if it would otherwise cover you — refuse to honor the claim because you didn’t have a valid license.

Unfortunately, some less scrupulous travel agents or tour operators may try to convince you that you need this ID in order to legally drive in another country, and they make a bundle from selling fraudulent IDPs. Put it this way: I haven’t had a reader complain about being denied a rental car because of a lack of IDP. I have, however, had a few grievances about pushy travel agents trying to sell an IDP of questionable value. You’re not likely to need an IDP, but it’s something that you’re better off having and not needing than the other way around.

I don’t have a passport. When should I get one?

Do it now. If you’ve booked an international trip, there’s no time like the present to get your passport. It can take up to six weeks to get a passport, but during busy periods — just before the summer travel season, for example — it can take significantly longer. During the pandemic, processing times were between 10 to 12 weeks. Considering that an adult passport lasts 10 years, what’s a few extra months? At least you’ll have the passport, instead of waiting nervously by the mailbox for the document to arrive. Don’t let that be you.

I need to renew my passport soon. When should I do it?

Again, the correct answer is: now. The State Department recommends that you renew your passport at least nine months before it expires. The reason? Some countries require that your passport be valid at least six months after the dates of your trip, and some airlines will not allow you to board a flight if that requirement isn’t met.

Warning: Don’t lose your papers!

When you cross the border to some countries, a customs agent will give you a form. Don’t lose it. For example, Chile issues American visitors a tourist card, which you must present upon your departure. If you lose it, you can get it replaced only at the offices of the Policía Internacional, by showing your passport

My passport is damaged or mutilated — do I need a new one?

Yes. When in doubt, get a replacement. I’ve had cases where a passport wasn’t accepted because it was damaged. The reader had to turn around and return to the United States — from South Africa.

My cruise line says I can show a birth certificate. Can’t I just save the money on a passport?

No, no, no. You need a passport. Repeat: You. Need. A. Passport. The problem isn’t that birth certificates are an acceptable form of ID on closed-loop cruises. That’s what your travel agent or cruise line will tell you. (Again, these are both patently unreliable sources of information, when it comes to your paperwork requirements.) Rather, the problem is that you will have to deal with others along the way who may disagree with your travel agent’s or cruise line’s interpretation of what does and doesn’t constitute a valid birth certificate. Does it have to have a “raised” seal? Does it have to be an American birth certificate? Can it be reissued, or does it have to be the original? I’ve seen cruise passengers left at the dock, and losing their entire cruise, because of a disagreement about a birth certificate. A valid passport trumps everything. Repeat: Get a passport.

What about expediting services, or the expedite option for passports?

You can pay an extra $60, and get your passport in two to three weeks. (Never mind the fact that it shouldn’t take that long to get a passport the regular way.) If you have a “life or death” emergency, and must travel within the next day or two, then you can appear in person at a passport agency, provide proof of your emergency, and get your travel documents. In addition, there are passport expediting services that charge you an additional fee, and guarantee a passport within 24 hours. It’ll cost a lot more than what the State Department charges for a passport, more than doubling the price of a new passport once fees are added.

What’s an entrance or exit fee?
Some countries charge a fee to either enter or exit the country. For example, some countries charge a “reciprocity fee” if you arrive by air. Sometimes the fees are rolled into your airline ticket, sometimes not. Sometimes you have to pay in dollars, sometimes in the local currency. Check the embassy site or the State Department site for details.

Full passport? Think ahead. If you need additional pages, you can order a bigger passport. Applicants within the United States may choose a 28-page or 52-page book, according to the State Department. If you run out of pages, you’ll need a new passport.

Troubleshooting your paperwork problems

I’ve met all my paperwork requirements, but I’m not being allowed to board. What now?

This happens infrequently with airlines and is more common with cruises. When it does, the burden of proof is on you to convince the agent that they’re misinformed. On a cruise, the easiest way to avoid this situation is to get a passport instead of using your birth certificate as an ID. Birth certificates are problematic, for many reasons.

But even when everything is in order, you can still get hung up on issues like the expiration date of your passport or even the requirements for the number of blank pages within the passport. It’s important to know the requirements of every country you’re traveling to or transiting through. When you’re traveling somewhere exotic where the rules are more convoluted (any time a visa is required), you may want to travel with a printout of the country’s paperwork requirements from their website. Why? Well, airlines and cruise lines are held responsible for letting passengers board without the right documents, so they tend to err on the side of caution, even when they’re wrong. Basically, you need proof that you can travel, from an official source.

What if I’ve lost my passport?

If you lose your passport while traveling abroad, contact your nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. You can report your passport stolen by calling (877) 487-2778 (may not work outside the U.S.). You’ll need to fill out a Form DS-64, a statement regarding a lost or stolen passport. Then you’ll have to fill out yet another form to get a new passport, this time a DS-11, which is an application for a new passport. Note: once you’ve reported a passport missing or stolen, it won’t work. Ever again. So only report it if you’re sure it’s gone.

What if I’ve lost my driver’s license, visa or other important paperwork?

The process for replacing other important IDs and paperwork can vary based on where you live and where you’re visiting. It’s difficult to generalize, but one thing is certain: having a copy of the missing ID stored online makes it far easier to get it replaced, no matter where you are or what stage of the journey you’re at.

Bottom line: Whether you’re crossing the border into Canada or embarking on an around-the-world adventure, you have to line up your paperwork well in advance of your trip. Make sure you have your passport, as well as all the necessary visas and permits, and be certain they’re valid for the duration of your voyage. When in doubt, consult an official source, and don’t rely on someone who may or may not know the requirements. Most important, remember that you — and you alone — are responsible for having the right travel documents.

*For more expert travel advice, see my ultimate guide.

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