Passport Card: Does it make sense to purchase one?

US Passport Card

Since the inception of the U.S. passport card, I have advised the vast majority of US citizens to obtain a U.S. passport, not a passport card, as their travel identification document for international journeys. I haven’t changed that recommendation.

The passport card’s usefulness as an international travel identification  document is so limited, it’s not adequate for most of its intended use.

You can imagine my surprise when I found myself putting an “X” in the checkbox on my U.S. passport renewal application, to get a passport card with my new passport.

Personally, I’m still carrying my U.S. Passport whenever I leave the country. So what’s changed to induce me to spend an extra $20 for a passport card?

I found a worthwhile use for it. My passport card will be my travel ID back-up. At $20, when you get it with a passport, I think it’s worth it.

Here’s some of the basic facts about using your U.S. passport and passport card, so you can understand my decision.

For US citizens, the passport is the sole official travel identification document, recognized, and accepted across the world, regardless of the citizen’s mode of transportation. Every country of the world, permitting US citizens entry to their country, authorizes them to use their passport for identification for entry to, and exit from their country.

On the other hand, the US passport card is only accepted as a U.S. citizen’s official travel identification document by 20 of the world’s nations; Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and 17 island nations of the Caribbean. For travel to every other nation of the world, U.S. citizens must use their passport. Furthermore, the passport card may only be used for international travel, on land and sea. Use of the passport card for international air travel, to and from any nation, including the 20 listed above, is prohibited.

That means there are only two basic uses for the U.S. passport card;

• Driving between the U.S. and Canada, or between the US and Mexico, and
• Taking a cruise from the U.S. to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and/or many Caribbean island nations and back.

Unfortunately, some citizens traveling only with a passport card on those journeys, may be heading for trouble.

Those driving to Canada or Mexico, or on a cruise, only with a passport card, who encounter an emergency, can’t use their passport card to fly back to the US. Emergencies can happen. The traveler, a family member, friend, or traveling companion may become seriously ill and need to return to the U.S. quickly. Travelers sometimes need to return home for an emergency there. Armed with only a passport card, U.S. citizens won’t be permitted to board a plane back to the U.S.

While on a cruise, it’s not unknown for passengers to arrive late for the cruise’s embarkation, missing the ship, and sometimes (It happens more often than most people think.) passengers miss their ship’s sailing from port due to a variety of reasons. This means a cruise passenger would have to fly to the next port of call, or back home to the U.S. As above, if a citizen doesn’t have their passport, they won’t be permitted to board the plane.

According to the U.S. Department of State, 2.7M passport cards have been issued thus far. When might it be safe for those citizens to use their passport card as their primary identification for international travel? Many U.S. citizens live near the border of Canada or Mexico. They often travel to those countries regularly for shopping, and to purchase medical and other services. Generally they’re traveling less than 50 miles from home. The passport card should be a safe bet for them, but for other travelers, including cruisers, it’s foolhardy to do so, in my opinion.

My passport will continue to be my primary international travel identification document. My newly purchased passport card, will be my identification back-up, internationally, and domestically.

If my passport is lost or stolen while out of the US, it will provide the identity proof I need to quickly obtain a replacement passport. I believe our embassies will prefer it to a paper color copy of my passport.

While traveling domestically, if my state driver’s license is lost or stolen, I won’t be able to get a new one until I return home. A passport card is an acceptable ID for flying domestically, according to TSA. While you’re not absolutely required to have a government issued photo ID to fly domestically, having one will surely make it easier getting through TSA security.

So, there is a good rationale for any U.S. citizen to have a passport card; “back-up.” It’s just not the purpose envisioned by Congress.

  • John Baker

    Wow Ned … Two postings in a row we agree! I didn’t realize that the passport card was only $20 when you renewed your passport. At that price, its cheaper than getting an extra copy of our driver’s license in my state and is better recognized as a citizenship document (see the recetn articles on Arizona, REAL ID and lost passports.

    Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll have to pass it along!

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  • Dalit

    Even at USD 20, it’s useless. Couldn’t we have a photocopy of our passports as a backup?

  • Henry

    “If my passport is lost or stolen while out of the US, it will provide the identity proof I need to quickly obtain a replacement passport.” … is this confirmed? i’m not sure i’d trust this otherwise …

  • Ned Levi

    Dalit, if you’ve had your passport lost or stolen, you can indeed use a copy of your passport as your proof of identity for the US embassy, to obtain a new passport while out of the US. As I stated in my column, Oh my, I lost my ID. How am I going to get home? you’ll need to have a copy all the relevant pages so you’ll have your signature, photo, passport number, and date of issue information at the least. It’s also better, according to the experience of a couple of people I know who had their passports pick-pocketed to make sure the copy of your passport is a color copy.

    A Passport Card, on the other hand, is not a copy of anything, but is a legitimate proof of citizenship identity document issued by the Department of State, and would be unquestioned proof to obtain a new Passport, while sometimes, a color copy of a Passport may be indeed questioned, considering how almost anything can be “photoshopped” these days.

    In addition, if you’re on a domestic trip, and have your driver’s license lost or stolen, TSA looks dimly at a copy, even color, of your driver’s license, or passport, being substituted for your driver’s license. They rather have you use a Costco or BJ’s card, as it turns out. Either way, you’re probably in for a time consuming secondary screening, however, if you have a Passport Card, that’s as good as a driver’s license.

    So, for a measily $20 I’m going with the Passport Card as the better choice, compared to a photocopy.

    Henry, the US Passport Card is a proof of citizenship identity document issued by the Department of State. To get one, you have to provide the same proof of identity and citizenship as a Passport. It is indeed the best proof of identity and citizenship, to give to the local US embassy, which you could have while out of the country, if your passport was lost or stolen, in order to have your passport replaced.

  • Nancy

    one small amendment to create 3 basic uses for the passport card – besides driving or cruising, passengers can travel by train between the US and either Canada or Mexico

  • Kyle

    Ned I agree with you that it would be foolish to only have a passport card while traveling internationally. But it still very useful to have one while traveling. Besides the reasons you stated above I found out that it still has 2 other great uses.

    1. Tour groups, cruise ships, etc. might confiscate your passport in order to travel more efficiently. This leave you without a passport while traveling from place to place on a tour. Usually they give you a card or a receipt that they claim can be used in place of a passport. However some police / security personal might not understand this concept, and it could be difficult to deal with them if you don’t have a proper passport. Having a secondary passport makes this process easier to deal with.

    2. Also it acts as a great ID card. I prefer it over my drivers licenses because it doesn’t contain my address.

  • baudelio

    can i use my receipt that i got from the post office to get back in the us

  • Ned Levi

    Hi Baudelio,

    In a word, “No!”

  • http://None Dan

    It’s $30 now for 1st time passport applications. Still worth it I think.

  • Ned Levi

    Dan, I suspect you meant $30 for a passport card application, but you are incorrect, or at least you haven’t been specific enough. Permit me to be more precise.

    A first-time applicant for an adult passport card costs $55.
    If you already hold a passport you can apply for a passport card for $30.
    A first-time applicant for an adult passport costs $135.
    A first-time applicant for an adult passport and passport card costs $165.

    Costs aside, unless one is using the passport card to drive a few miles into Canada or Mexico to shop, see the doctor, go to a pharmacy, see relatives, etc. I think its purchase as one’s sole international identification is a poor choice. To purchase it for a cruise is a very bad choice.

    The cost differential initially is $80, for some, it can be said, it’s not an insignificant sum. I would submit for anyone on a cruise, it’s not significant, as for most people it pales against the cost of the cruise. Moreover, the cost differential per year is $8.

    The biggest problem with the passport card is that it may not be used as identification for an international plane flight. If you get stuck in Canada, or Mexico, or on a cruise for which a passport card is sufficient, and an emergency occurs which requires you to fly home, or to another country, you will not be permitted to use a passport card as your international identification. There is no doubt that emergencies do occur. I know many who’ve had to fly internationally from a cruise, for example, due to an emergency, a death in the family, or simply because they missed their ship sailing from port, and had to meet it at the next port, or even fly home.

    I believe that virtually all Americans who are purchasing international identification from the US State Department should purchase a passport, rather than a passport card as their ID, or if the prefer, purchase both.

    Whenever I leave the country I use my passport, whether I’m traveling by land, sea, or air. I do have my passport card as a secondary ID, to facilitate obtaining a new passport in case my passport is lost or stolen. Whenever I’m flying domestically, I carry my passport card as a secondary ID, in case my driver’s license is lost or stolen.

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  • Anitra Byers

    Great info! I m so glad to read that someone has a clear view on the differences between a passport card and passport book.

  • DeathToBakla

    If you have a family emergency abroad and need to fly, why not just go get a passport book to fly back? Duh.

    Not very complicated.

  • DeathToBakla

    Doesn’t everyone?

  • bfealk

    I’d like to know the reasoning behind the passport card not being valid for air travel. I don’t understand why a passport card is not acceptable.