Do I need a passport to cruise? It’s the biggest question from readers and travel agents say there’s plenty of confusion regarding the U.S. State Department’s guidelines. Here’s the real deal with cruising and the new passport rules launching June 1, 2009.

Passport quandary

“The State Department has changed the regulations so many times that it is nearly impossible to keep up,” says travel agency owner John Frenaye. Indeed, the U.S. State Department’s Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) passport rule, which goes into effect on June 1, 2009, has been delayed three times creating much confusion regarding passport requirements.When researching this article I was given the wrong information from the State Department regarding cruise passengers. Fortunately, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection provided the correct details.

What, specifically, does the new WHTI passport rule mean for cruisers? It all depends where you’re taking your cruise and how you get to your cruise embarkation port.

U.S. citizens need a passport now for cruises that stop at ports in South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. Additionally, U.S. citizens who travel by air to the Caribbean, Canada, Mexico and Bermuda to catch their ship must have a passport.

However, if you are cruising to and from the Caribbean, Bermuda, Mexico, and Canada from a U.S. port you do not need a passport – this is deemed a “closed loop” voyage. A “closed loop” voyage or itinerary occurs when a vessel departs from a U.S. port or place and returns to the same U.S. port upon completion of the voyage. Per the WHTI Land and Sea Final Rule, travelers on “closed loop” voyages are not subject to the same documentary requirements for entry to the United States as other travelers.

If your voyage falls under the closed loop rule you only need to carry a government-issued photo ID (such as a driver’s license) and a certified birth certificate (children traveling with an adult require a birth certificate as well). A certified birth certificate has a registrar’s raised, embossed, impressed or multicolored seal, registrar’s signature, and the date the certificate was filed with the registrar’s office, which must be within one year of your birth.

Keep in mind this rule is for U.S. citizens cruising from a U.S. port. If you are taking one way itineraries you will have to have a passport. For example, if you start a cruise in Vancouver or Seattle and end in Seward or Whittier Alaska you must have a passport. Ditto for cruises starting in Los Angeles and ending in Acapulco, cruises starting in Miami and ending in Barbados, or cruises starting in Quebec and ending in New York City – you’ll need a passport.

Currently, those who drive across the Canadian border to a port will not need a passport since land-crossings are currently exempt. In that instance the aforementioned proof of citizenship is needed.

As always, passports are not required for U.S. citizens traveling to or returning directly from Hawaii or a U.S. territory, including Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Swains Island, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Requirements on June 1, 2009:

On June 1, 2009 all arriving and returning U.S. citizens must have a passport or passport card to enter the U.S. by land from Canada and Mexico. One exception is U.S. and Canadian citizens under the age of 16 will be able to present a birth certificate instead of a passport for crossing land/sea borders between the U.S. and Canada. There also will be special provisions for children traveling in school, sports or other groups. This date now means that U.S. citizens sailing round trip Alaska cruises from Vancouver will require a passport.

Passport or passport card?:

What’s the difference between a passport and a passport card? The passport card was mandated by Congress as an alternative secure document but only for land and sea entry. The card contains radio frequency identification on an RFID chip, designed to be read quickly by scanning equipment installed at U.S. points of entry. One very important distinction is the passport card is not acceptable for air travel.

There is some cost savings in having a passport card versus a passport, here’s what you need to know:

*Standard, first-time passports now cost $100 and are valid 10 years. U.S. citizens age 15 and younger pay $85 for a passport valid for five years.

*The new land/sea passport card costs $45 for adults and would be valid 10 years. Citizens age 15 and younger pay $35 for a card valid for five years.

*Current passport holders can apply for the card as a renewal and pay $20. The card costs $10 for those younger than age 16 who already has a passport.

For travelers who don’t want to deal with passports or passport cards, there is the “trusted traveler” card issued by the federal government to prescreened travelers. (But those won’t get you over an international border the way a passport will.) Also, a number of border states are working on enhanced drivers licenses containing the RFID chip and other security features that are acceptable for entry at land and sea points. Currently, Washington state is the only one with these licenses. New York, Arizona, California, Michigan, Texas and Vermont are set to follow.

Why traveling without a passport is risky:

Travel agents want you to know traveling without a passport is risky. “I advise all my clients who travel abroad to apply for a full-fledged passport,” said Frenaye. He cites an example of someone who sails out of Miami without a passport who falls ill when the ship is at sea and needs to fly home from the Bahamas. Frenaye adds, “Without a passport, this person is likely to incur extreme scrutiny and questioning by customs, which will only add more stress to the initial event.” It’s a rare situation, of course, but it does happen from time to time.

Passport basics:

So cruising regulars if you don’t have a passport it might be a good time to get one soon.

Plan ahead. Apply for your passport at least four months in advance, if possible. Renewals can take as long as a first issue, so check your passport’s expiration date. If the passport is due to expire soon and you are planning a trip abroad, check the passport rules for the countries you’re visiting. Many countries require your passport to be valid for three to six months beyond the date you enter the country. For example, if your passport expires in November 2009, and you want to travel this coming March, you may need to renew your passport before you go.

Also, according to new guidelines from the U.S. State Department, county clerk offices cannot process a passport application if the applicant’s birth certificate was issued within that county. This modification was enacted in response to a problem when officials discovered illegally produced birth records. This rule will be a major inconvenience for many rural citizens since first-time applicants and all children must apply for a passport in person — that may mean a long drive to the clerk’s office in the next county.

Applications and instructions are available at passport offices and select U.S. post offices and online at the U.S. State Department’s travel Web site. Be sure to write your trip’s departure date on the application. Passport officials say they are doing their best to get passports out in time for travelers’ departures.

Allow plenty of processing time. The new rule of thumb is to allow at least 12 weeks for a regular application and four weeks for an expedited application. Holidays will slow down the process, sometimes considerably.

Expedite the process. If you are leaving within the next two months, pay the additional $60 to expedite your application. The State Department says it will get an expedited passport to you in two or three weeks. If you are truly desperate, hire a “passport expediter,” who can get you a faster turnaround for a fee of $100 or more (that’s in addition to the $60 State Department expediting fee, which is in addition to the regular $100 fee for an adult’s passport). These companies aren’t a sure thing, but they do have standing appointments at passport offices around the country; that appointment status effectively allows them to jump the line. To find an expediter, check the National Association of Passport and Visa Services Web site.

Keep good records. Keep all receipts, a copy of your application and records of communication with the passport office. Make sure to note your “Passport Locator Number” when you complete your application at the post office.

Check on the status. Applicants can check their passport’s status online on the State Department’s Passport Application Status Web site. If you are traveling within the next two weeks, contact the National Passport Information Center at (877) 487-2778. If you haven’t already done so, you can request that your application be expedited.

Get extra copies of your birth certificate. Since one certified birth certificate must be sent with your passport application, it is wise to obtain extra copies of the birth certificate to use for identification until the original one is returned with your passport.

Don’t get into a documentation dilemma that causes you to miss your cruise. All cruise line passenger contracts state it is the passenger’s responsibility to have proper documentation when you arrive at the pier. Furthermore, basic travel insurance will not cover you if you forget your passport or little Johnny’s birth certificate. A number of cruise lines and large third party travel insurance companies have “cancel-for-any-reason” coverage. That is the only policy that would protect your cruise investment in a documentation faux pas.

Need more info? The Travel Business Roundtable has set up a Web site, getapassportnow.com that explains the new rules and requirements for getting a passport.