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Getting Past the Passport Crunch

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passport.jpgSweeping rule changes, ruined honeymoons, outraged passengers, embarrassed officials, government vacations…it’s like a soap opera that won’t end.

First, The Latest Updates

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) requires passport for land, air and sea travelers to re-enter the United States from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda or countries in the Caribbean (not including St. Thomas, St John or Puerto Rico).

The passport requirement for air travel took effect on January 23, 2007. However, the flood of passport applications caused a massive backlog in the U.S. Department of State.

In early June, the government announced that through September 30, 2007, citizens traveling by air can return from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean using a government-issued photo identification (such as a driver’s license or birth certificate) and proof that a passport application is being processed.

No exact date is set, but it’s expected that passports will be required for passengers traveling by land and by sea (i.e. ferries, cruises) from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean by or around June 1, 2009.

“The ax is not going to drop in January,” says Kelly Klundt of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (referring to a similar comment from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff). “We need to raise the visibility and allow all the time for documents to be available. Folks need to be aware that by January, you can’t walk up to the border and say ‘Hi, I’m an American citizen.’”

What does this mean for me?

The passport requirement refers to re-entry into the U.S. by air. Previously, passengers could travel to and from these locations by land or sea with only a government-issued ID and/or birth certificate.

The U.S.-mandated rules don’t affect entry requirements specific to these countries. The rule of thumb is that to exit the U.S. by air, you need a passport. So regardless of what the countries’ entry requirements are, it shouldn’t be any news to air travelers that a passport is required. (Of course, due to the current backlog and relaxation of the rules, you can show your ID and proof of passport application for the time being).

However, current land and sea requirements to enter these countries are as follows, according to the State Department Web site (http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1765.html#c):

Canada: “Land and sea travelers are encouraged to have a valid U.S. passport. If they do not have a passport, they should be prepared to provide a government-issued photo ID (e.g. Driver’s License) and proof of U.S. citizenship such as a U.S. birth or naturalization certificate.”

Mexico: “Land or sea travelers must have a valid U.S. passport (or U.S. citizenship documents such as a certified copy (not a simple photocopy or facsimile) of a U.S. birth certificate, a Naturalization Certificate, a Consular Report of Birth Abroad, or a Certificate of Citizenship are acceptable along with photo identification, such as a state or military issued ID).”

Bermuda: “Sea travelers are also strongly advised to have a valid U.S. passport (or other original proof of U.S. citizenship, such as a certified U.S. birth certificate with a government-issued photo ID). Persons traveling with U.S. passports tend to encounter fewer difficulties upon departure than those who choose to use other documents.”

Caribbean (including, but not limited to, Anguilla, Bahamas, Dominican Republic, and Jamaica): “While a U.S. passport is not yet mandatory for sea travel, it is strongly recommended since it is a more readily recognized form of positive proof of citizenship…When traveling by sea, Dominican law allows U.S. citizens to enter the country on other proof of U.S. citizenship (U.S. birth certificate, Naturalization Certificate, etc.) along with a photo ID.”

So why all the drama?

It goes back to 2004, when Congress passed into law in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 which included the WHTI. That essentially gave the government two years to prepare by opening new passport offices, hiring employees and raising public awareness.

Now, consider the fact that up until this point, only about 21 percent of Americans had passports. The result?

Millions of applications flooded the State Department and it was more than they had prepared for. In March and April of 2007 alone, the State Department issued more than three million passports, which was a 35 percent increase from the same period of the previous year.

This mad rush led to a not-too-surprising backlog. By mid-summer, the wait for passports was more than three months; even expedited services were taking up to three weeks to process. By the end of June 2007, more than half a million passports had been in the system for 10 weeks, according to the State Department.

For weeks, the government struggled to keep its head above water. That, of course, only resulted in more confusion and chaos. The State Department hired hundreds of new employees and extended overtime hours for current employees. In July, the House even approved a measure, sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), to re-hire retired Foreign Service workers.

The whole debacle has even left some government officials red-faced. “Over the past several months, many travelers who applied for a passport did not receive their document in time for their planned travel,” said Assistant Secretary of State Maura Harty in a public apology. “I deeply regret that. I accept complete responsibility for this.”

Ruined Travel Plans

This debacle has ruined thousands of travel plans this summer, not to mention the hours spent waiting in line and on hold with the overwhelmed State Department. Consider the case of the cruise-bound Hemphill family, as reported by Tripso.com, who had to leave part of the family behind when their passports failed to show up after 11 weeks.

Or hear the recent story of Jim Lawler, who, on a trip last year, lost his passport and was granted a temporary one while in Nairobi (he got it within three hours). When he and his wife made plans to travel to Canada this July, he sent in an application for a new passport in February. About 30 days later the application was returned, because “they didn’t like the photo.”

Lawler resent the application. Still no passport. On July 30, six days before he was due to leave for his trip, he reached out to PeterGreenberg.com.

I am mired in the renewal passport quagmire. I applied for my passport renewal back in March and my check was cashed on April 11, 2007. To date my passport has not arrived and I leave for Canada on July 6th.

I placed a trace on my passport 8 days ago and have not received an email reply. The Web site said to allow 7-10 days. What I need to know is what do I need to enter Canada and what do I need to return to the U.S. if my passport does not arrive in time.

PeterGreenberg.com advised Lawler to bring a photo ID, an original copy of his birth certificate, and printout showing he applied for a passport. Thankfully, with these items in hand, Lawler’s trip went smoothly. The real kicker? His passport arrived the day after he returned from Canada, 13 weeks after his second application.

When armed with the right information and a bit of luck, you may have a happy ending like Lawler. But passport delays have disrupted or destroyed thousands of travel plans this summer.

What about kids?

Things aren’t any simpler here.

All children, regardless of age, require a passport to re-enter the U.S. Additionally, minors under the age of 14 can’t travel out of the country with just one parent without jumping through some hoops. Both parents must appear at a passport agency and sign a Present Parental Application Permission Documentation, or one parent can submit a notarized statement of consent to authorize a passport for the child, OR, one parent can submit evidence that they have the sole authority to apply for the child’s passport (i.e. death certificates, sole parent adoption decrees or a declaration of incompetence of the non-applying parent).

In addition, the rules are getting murky for kids traveling to and from Canada. Think about school groups and teams that have spent generations crossing the border for hockey games and academic competitions, or educational trips to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.

According to Klundt of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the latest proposal for children is that U.S. and Canadian citizen children under 16 who are traveling by land or sea, as well as all children under 18 and under who are traveling by land or sea in designated groups (i.e. chaperoned sports teams, school groups and religious organizations) may present certified copies of their birth certificates. Children traveling by air with a chaperone require a passport, although until September 30, 2007, presenting a receipt of passport application is acceptable.

Still confused?

There’s not much that the average traveler can do about this passport mess, but here are some tips to make your journey a little easier:

  • Apply early. Don’t wait until 10 or 12 weeks before you’re due to leave. If you already have a passport, check it now to make sure that you won’t be caught by surprise.
  • Remember that applying early is also going to save you significant money. An adult passport is $97 ($67 for the application and $30 for the “execution fee.” Passports for kids under the age of 16 is $82. Expedited passports require an additional $60. When you’re talking about a family of four, this adds up quickly.
  • Make two photocopies of your passport. Keep one (in a separate location than the original) and leave a copy of your passport at home with a friend or relative.
  • Scan your passport into a computer where you can access it easily while traveling. If you’re concerned about storing the passport on a Web based email service or a laptop that can get stolen, try a secure document storing service. PassportSupport.com, Durafile.com and Keepyousafe.com store documents through encrypted software.
  • Keep two extra passport-sized photos of yourself in case you need to replace a lost or stolen passport.
  • If you do lose your passport, notify the authorities immediately. That means the local police and the U.S. Embassy or Consulate. If you bring a copy of the passport and your two photos, you will be issued a temporary passport.

Resources

Transportation Industry Association passport help page
http://getapassportnow.com

National Passport Information Center
877-487-2778, http://www.travel.state.gov/passport/about/npic/npic_898.html
(Note the disclaimer: “Please expect delays if you wish to speak to a customer service representative. You may have to call several times before reaching a representative.”)

Check the status of your passport application
http://www.travel.state.gov/passport/get/status/status_2567.html

Obtain proof of your passport application
http://travel.state.gov/passport/get/status/status_2567.html

Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative: The Basics
http://www.dhs.gov/xtrvlsec/crossingborders/whtibasics.shtm

Passport requirements for minors
http://travel.state.gov/passport/get/minors/minors_834.html

In a hurry? One handy tip is that if you’re applying for an expedited passport, write “EXPEDITE” on the outside of the envelope containing your application.

You may also want to consider using an authorized expedited passport service, which can (for a price) help cut through some of the red tape on your behalf.

It’s Easy Passport: 866-487-3279, http://www.itseasypassport.com
Passport Plus: 800-367-1818, http://www.passportplus.net
Passports and Visas: 800-860-8610, http://www.passportsandvisas.com
Passport Express: 800-362-8196, http://www.passportexpress.com
Zierer Visa Services: 866-788-1100, http://www.zvs.com

By Managing Editor Sarika Chawla for PeterGreenberg.com.

For more information on travel documents, check out Secure Your Travel Documents Online.

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