Have passports ready for travel to Canada, Mexico

Planning a trip to Canada or Mexico? No matter how you get there, you'll now need a passport or other secure document.

Just as the summer travel season kicks into gear, the full requirements of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative went into effect Monday. That means U.S. citizens crossing borders by land or sea will have to show approved documents or face long delays while authorities try to verify citizenship.

Passengers on cruise lines that start and end at the same U.S. port and travel only within the Western Hemisphere don't need a passport. However, if any ports are in a foreign country, cruisers may need a passport to enter that country. That would include stops in Canada on Alaskan cruises.

These passport regulations have been in effect for air travel since 2007, but regulations for other crossings were delayed because of a months-long backlog in processing passport applications. That has eased considerably since the recession cut into Americans' travel budgets.

The biggest impact of the new rules will be along the U.S.-Mexico border, where there were 216 million crossings last year, compared with 72 million at the U.S.-Canada border.

About 80 percent of U.S. citizens crossing by land or sea already show a passport or other secure document, and "we're seeing a slight increase as the June 1 date approaches,'' said Joanne Ferreira, a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection.

"We've been working on this for three years now, and we have a very aggressive communication campaign with TV commercials, radio, print ads, banners and posters,'' she said. "We think everything is going to be okay."

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, recommended by the 9/11 Commission as an enhanced security measure, requires all U.S. citizens traveling within the hemisphere to have a passport or other approved document.

Those include "passport cards,'' which are less expensive than regular passports ($45 vs. $75) but cannot be used for international air travel. The wallet-sized cards are valid only for land or sea entry to the United States from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda.

Other acceptable documents for hemispheric travel are "enhanced driver's licenses,'' issued by a handful of states (Florida is not among them); and "trusted traveler cards,'' which permit expedited passage for preapproved, low-risk travelers through dedicated lanes and kiosks.

The new rules apply to American citizens 16 and older; those under 16 can present the original or a certified copy of their birth certificate, or other proof of U.S. citizenship such as a naturalization certificate or citizenship card.

Similar regulations for Canadian citizens also took effect Monday.

After a two-year delay and plenty of publicity, no one should show up at a border crossing or seaport without the proper document, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano recently told reporters.

"The law is the law,'' she said, "and it's not going to be postponed anymore.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at susan@sptimes.com.

ON THE WEB

To learn more

More information on passport applications and the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative is available at www.state.gov.

Have passports ready for travel to Canada, Mexico 05/28/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 9, 2009 6:47pm]

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