Passport or passport card — which is best for foreign travel?


Travelers, it seems, have a choice these days of whether to travel with a US passport or with the new passport cards being issued by the Department of State. Each has its use, however which is best for what kind of traveler? Beyond saving money, does the new passport card make sense? Or should everyone opt for an old basic US passport?

Passport cards cost $55 less than passports, but there’s a catch. They can’t be used for air travel anywhere, and may only be used for land and sea travel to WHTI (Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative) countries including Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and most, but not all, Caribbean islands.

US law already requires all citizens returning home by air, or from any non-WHTI country, to have a passport. Starting June 1, 2009, US law will require all citizens reentering the country by land or sea from WHTI countries to have a passport, passport card, or for some Americans, an alternate WHTI compliant ID, such as a Trusted Traveler Card (NEXUS, SENTRI, or FAST), or a state issued Enhanced Driver’s License, if and when they become available. (Trusted traveler programs have special benefits and are more expensive than obtaining a passport card.)

Both the US Passport and Passport Card are valid for 10 years for adults. A first time passport costs $100 for adults and a renewal $75. A first time passport card costs $45 for adults and a renewal $20. If cost was the only criterion to make a decision to get a passport or passport card, this article wouldn’t need writing.

Some Caribbean nations, such as Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago, are not WHTI countries. US citizens, even when traveling by sea to and from these nations, need a passport. US WHTI law does not preclude WHTI countries from requiring a US passport to enter their country. Jamaica, for example, a WHTI country, requires US citizens traveling there for work or extended stays to have a current US Passport.

US citizens on closed-loop cruises (cruises that begin and end at the same US port) which visit only WHTI countries won’t need either a passport or passport card and will be able to reenter the US with a certified birth certificate, and a state driver’s license.

For travel solely between the US and its territories, such as Puerto Rico or the US Virgin Islands, US citizens are not considered to have left the US, and therefore don’t need anything more than a state issued driver’s license as identification.**

There’s a crucial factor to consider, other than how or where you travel, when deciding which travel ID document you need. It’s the “potential emergency.” Emergencies are very real possibilities when traveling. I’ve run into a few over the years myself.

Cruisers can miss their ship leaving port. I’ve heard hundreds of stories of this happening when cruisers fly into their embarkation city on the day of the cruise, and their flight is significantly delayed. These cruisers must fly to the next port to meet their ship. Ships can and do occasionally break down. A family member at home can become ill. Travelers or their companions can become seriously ill themselves, and have to return home immediately, by air. In each of these circumstances, you need a passport to fly home to the US, or fly to another country. While emergencies aren’t an every day occurrence, they aren’t particularly rare either.

Here’s my “practical” advice on which travel ID to get for your planned or potential foreign travel.

If your foreign travel will take you to any non-WHTI country, or if you’ll be flying, there’s no choice, you must have a passport.

If your foreign travel will be only by sea, and only to WHTI countries, while a passport card is sufficient, I recommend you get a passport in case of an emergency. The emergency may never come, but if it does, you’ll be very happy you have a passport so you’re not denied flying on to the next port, or when reentering the US, you are not detained for inspection and questioning — or worse — by Customs and Immigration.

If your foreign travel will consist solely of overland travel to either Canada or Mexico, with no thought of traveling elsewhere, then go for the passport card.

Bon Voyage!

**While US citizens will not need a passport when returning directly to the US from one of its territories according to the Department of Homeland Security, US citizens traveling directly from the US to some US territories, including American Samoa and Swains Island, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands will need either a passport, or a state driver’s license and a certified birth certificate or naturalization papers, to enter those territories.

  • John F

    The card is a waste and confusing. People planning on traveling out of the country–WHITI or not need a passport. Why is this such a difficult concept for the gov’t to grasp?

    Which of the following statements are true…both are from the gov’t and they conflict? One says that June 1 2009, I need a passport or card to re-enter the US from a cruise. The other says I may not!

    Starting June 1, 2009, US law will require all citizens reentering the country by land or sea from WHTI countries to have a passport, passport card, or for some Americans, an alternate WHTI compliant ID, such as a Trusted Traveler Card (NEXUS, SENTRI, or FAST), or a state issued Enhanced Driver’s License, if and when they become available.

    US citizens on closed-loop cruises (cruises that begin and end at the same US port) which visit only WHTI countries, won’t need either a passport or passport card, but will be able to reenter the US with a certified birth certificate, and a state driver’s license.

  • Ned

    John, overall, I completely agree with you.

    People living on the our northern and southern borders, complained bitterly to their members of Congress. Up until recently they crossed the border regularly without anything more than their driver’s license. Now they have had to begin carrying a certified birth certificate too, until next year when they need the passport card, passport or other WHTI ID. They complained that the cost of a passport would be a hardship. Retirees said it would be difficult and maybe impossible to come up with the $100 needed for a passport. Some said they would loose their jobs over this change.

    In addition, Caribbean national tourism agencies, along with corporations in the tourism business in the Caribbean, Canada, and Mexico complained their business would go south if everyone had to get a passport to leave and return to the US.

    So Congress, in all their wisdom, came up with the law which directed Homeland Security and the State Department to create a special ID just for land and sea use for going to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and much of the Caribbean. It doesn’t even cover every country in the Caribbean which also boggles the mind.

    So now we have this split system which is confusing to most people, in my opinion. Of all the new regulations, the one which really makes no sense at all is the “closed loop rule.” At least if you’re going to have some countries which require only WHTI compliant identification, to visit by land or sea, then make it universal that you need it. This exception is insane in my opinion.

    Think about it this way. If you start in Ft. Lauderdale and go to only WHTI countries and end in Ft. Lauderdale you only need a driver’s license and certified birth certificate, but if you start in Ft. Lauderdale and end up in Miami you need a passport card or passport. What’s the sense in that difference? There is none!

    All that being said, these are the rules we’ll have for travel to many nearby countries. I don’t envy travel agents who will have the job of explaining it to their clients. There will be clients who won’t believe them, not follow the rules and then complain it’s the TA’s fault.

  • Terry

    Regarding not needing a US passport to visit US territories. I traveled to American Samoa several times in 2005-06, flying directly from Honolulu to Pago Pago. When you arrive at the Pago Pago airport, you must stand in line to show either a passport, or a driver’s license and birth certificate if you a US citizen. They strongly discouraged the latter. The American Samoa immigration officials (and their uniforms indicate they work for the American Samoa government, not the US State Department or Dep’t of Homeland Security) stamp your passport with an American Samoa entry stamp.

    Every time I left American Samoa, I had to stand in line to get my boarding pass stamped with an American Samoa exit visa. Upon arrival in Honolulu, all passengers, including US citizens, had to go through US immigrations and customs. I even had my passport stamped by the Honolulu immigration folks.

    I always wondered why, since I was going from US soil (Honolulu) to US soil (Pago Pago), with no stops in between, I had to show a passport. And vice versa. I asked several lawyers, including an immigration lawyer, and no one could explain this.

    According to the page at DHS. 1) They have changed the rule (highly unlikely in this day and age), 2) The whole entry and exit process to/from Honolulu to American Samoa is unnecessary 3) The DHS website is wrong and they don’t know what they are talking about.

    Of course, #3 is the worst case scenario. Someone planning to visit AS checks the DHS website, sees he doesn’t need a passport and doesn’t get one. Then arrives in either Pago Pago or on the return to Honolulu gets major hassles or even denied entry.

  • JBM

    One other option for travelers from the US to Canada is the NEXUS card. It costs $50 and is good for five years. The biggest benefit is the faster border crossing via a dedicated lane for NEXUS card holders and RF ID badge swiping. There are some catches to the program, one being that if you cross the border by auto with more than one occupant, everyone in the party has to have a NEXUS card; otherwise, you have to use the standard lanes instead of the NEXUS lane. Also, air travelers must get iris scanning, but this can only be done at a Canadian airport. When you are notified that you have been approved for the card after a background check, you have to show up at a NEXUS office at a border crossing for a 4-hour process of card issue and briefings by both US and Canadian customs officials. Having said all that, if you cross the border frequently, NEXUS is well worth the effort to obtain. Just be sure to keep your passport with you in case you run late and the NEXUS lanes are closed when you get to the border.

  • Ned Levi

    Terry, you have done us a great service with your comments.

    On their web site, the US Department of Homeland Security states:

    “Will travelers from U.S. territories need to present a passport to enter the United States?

    No. U.S. territories are considered a part of the United States. U.S. citizens returning directly from a U.S. territory are not considered to have left the country and do not need to present a passport. U.S. territories include the following: Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Swains Island and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.”

    I have further delved into this statement and checked on each territory individually. My research confirmed your information about American Samoa. The information offered there by the US Department of Homeland Security about the US’s own territories is misleading. One would infer that you only need a driver’s license to enter each of these territories. While that isn’t true, DHS tells me you only need a driver’s license to directly return to the US from these territories.

    I found that for Guam, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands, US citizens flying directly from the US to those territories only need a driver’s license as their identification to enter the territory and return directly to the US.

    I found that for American Samoa and Swains Island (Swains Island became part of American Samoa by joint resolution of the US Congress in 1925.) as well as the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, US citizens flying directly from the US to those territories need to prove US citizenship and therefore need either a Passport, or a state driver’s license for identification purposes, plus either a certified birth certificate or naturalization papers. In addition, for American Samoa and Swains Island, US citizens must have a ticket for onward passage out of American Samoa and Swains Island, or proof of employment in the same.

    You can find the correct requirements for American Samoa and Swains Island at the US Department of Interior, Office of Insular Affairs website: . You can find the correct requirements for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands at their tourism website: .

    All the above being said, US citizens must remember that if you fly into any US territory not from the US, but from another country, or if you return to the US, not directly from a territory, but from another country, you need a Passport. No other proof of citizenship and identification will be accepted other than a Passport.

  • Bill

    I know there are different things one can get away with, but in my opinion (and it is only my opinion) – everyone traveling should get a passport. This obsession about saving $50 or so is absurd. Get the right travel document, it is good for 10 years, and you are done.

  • Tim

    Two points here:

    1)If you travel to a country that requires a Visa (I have China and Egypt), they need to place the Visa in your passport.
    2) Thumbing through your fully stamped passport is just plain cool. It can bring back memories and act as a mini journal.

  • Lee

    Here is some advice. I just renewed my American Passport. I also opted to spend a little extra to get the card as well. Why? I travel to Central and South America quite a bit. When I arrive at my destination, I can lock my Passport up in the hotel safe-deposit box, and carry my card as my form of ID. As most here will know, an actual US Passport is a heavily wanted item in most of these countries, and is an ideal target for theft. This way, my passport is safe and sound in my hotel, waiting for my return trip.

  • Ned Levi

    Lee, thanks for your comment. Has that strategy actually worked for you?

    I ask for a couple of reasons. First, in countries in which a Passport Card cannot be used for returning to the US, they know what US Passports look like, but I wonder if they will recognize the Passport Card as legitimate ID for transactions at stores and banks, for example, and accept it. I suspect that while some in large cities some people might recognize it as a legitimate US governmental document, many, if not most, will consider it fraudulent and not accept it, as they know nothing about it. I’m even wondering if it will be recognized as a legitimate ID in the Caribbean, etc., considering its only legitimate use is in returning to the US at a US port of entry.

    Second, in the US, for example, the airlines don’t accept it as legitimate ID for domestic flights. I’ve seen it refused several times, but US Passports themselves are accepted for domestic flights.

    Personally, I’ll stick with my US Passport and carry it on my person, at all times when traveling internationally. It is the one form of identification, universally accepted internationally as proof of identity and citizenship. Oh, I don’t carry it in my back pocket.

    I wish you the best in your travels Lee.

  • Mary

    I’m just returning from spring break in Grand Cayman, and had the extremely unpleasant experience of being refused entry into Cayman, and sent back to the US because of “insufficient documentation” aka passport CARD. American Airlines in Minnesota accepted the passport card at check-in and booked me through to Caymen (the Caymanian gov’t fined them $1000 for doing this). I landed in Grand Cayman and was not allowed to stay. I had to fly back to the US on the next flight.
    I think the passport cards are a confusing disaster! I advise you to stick to the internationally recognized regular passport. [Passport cards are invalid for ANY air travel; you, your travel agent or airline check-in clerk may not know this…]

  • Ned Levi

    Hi Mary,

    I really appreciate you taking the time to write your comment today. I’m sorry that you had such a hard time. Unfortunately I’ve heard similar stories from scads of people over the last couple of weeks.

    Unfortunately, it’s only going to get worse.

    To start, I don’t understand American Airlines accepting the passport card at check-in. They know better. For plane flights out of the country to anywhere, the only accepted form of identification is a passport (there are some special exceptions, but the passport card is never an accepted form of identification for air travel).

    The passport card is for travel by land or sea only, and only to WHTI countries.

    Everyone should understand that not all countries in the Western Hemisphere are WHTI countries.

    WHTI countries are only the following nations: Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Bahamas, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Jamaica (except for business travel), Montserrat, Netherlands Antilles, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Turks and Caicos.

    Travel to all other countries by air or sea from the US require a passport, and I repeat travel to all WHTI countries by air requires a passport, not a passport card.

  • Mary

    Ned, I’m wondering if you’ve heard any reports of air travelers like myself (who erroneously flew internationally on a passport card) receiving a refund or other compensation from the airlines who accepted the card, for stress, time and money lost? As I wrote before, American Airlines was fined $1000, which seems to indicate at least some liability/ fault/blame for the error. But American is wanting to put all responsibility on me.

  • Ned Levi

    I haven’t heard anyone successfully getting a refund. The airline tariffs are pretty specific. I certainly haven’t heard of anyone getting a refund for stress, time and money lost.

    You might try contacting my colleague, Chris Elliott. Among other things, Chris is the National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate, but in my opinion, while American should not have let you fly out of the country using a passport card, having a passport was your responsibility when all is said and done.

    When it comes to travel documents and documentation, it is the responsibility of each traveler to have the correct ones. With the Internet today, it’s actually quite easy for anyone to determine what you need to travel to a specific country, as a US citizen. The US State Department has a whole section of their website devoted to Country Specific Travel Information.

    Then there are the travel websites like this one. We’ve been discussing Passports vs. Passport cards here and in our Forums, Talking Travelers, for sometime. I’ve written a few articles on the subject, as have other columnists here, such as Anita Dunham-Potter.

    Another great resource for travel is a travel agent. I’m a big believer in travel agents, and even though I’m an experienced traveler and travel columnist, I use a “brick and mortar” travel agent (not those travel sales companies online like Expedia, Travelocity or Priceline) most of the time for my travel, and for all trips out of the country. You can’t beat the advice, the attention to detail, and the help if you run into a problem. In addition, my agent normally saves me money, and I’ve never had my trips cost more because I used a travel agent. I think many people stay away from travel agents because they think it will cost more than booking the trip themselves. That’s just not true.

  • Jose

    Mary, you said that passport cards are invalid for ANY travel. But let’s say I’m flying from Tijuana, Mexico, to Guadalajara, Mexico – would I be fine with just a passport card, or does that also require a passport?

  • Ned Levi

    Jose, Mary didn’t say that. Mary said it was invalid for any “air travel,” but that’s not exactly correct either.

    Regardless, here’s the correct information.

    The Passport (Passport Book) is good for all international travel, and may be used for domestic air travel too.

    The Passport Card is good for land travel (car or train) to Canada and Mexico, and for sea travel (cruises, ferries, etc.) to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and some, but not all Caribbean islands.


    The Passport Card may be used instead of a US state driver’s license for US domestic air travel.

    In your example, your flights are International flights, so the Passport Card is invalid. A US Citizen would have to use their Passport for the flights in your example.

    Let’s say you are on a cruise visiting Mexico and have used your Passport Card for the cruise, and left your Passport at home in the US. An emergency occurs and you need to fly back to the US. The Passport Card is invalid for a flight from Mexico to the US and you will be refused permission to board the plane. You need a Passport to fly home for the emergency.

    My advice is to always use your passport for ALL international travel unless maybe if you’re merely driving less than about 40-50 miles into Canada or Mexico from the US. That’s the only time I would consider traveling Internationally outside the US with a Passport Card.

    That being said, I personally never leave the US without my Passport.

    In my recent column, Passport Card: Does it make sense to purchase one? I did find some legitimate uses for a Passport Card. You might want to read it to find out more information about this subject.