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Come June, passports will be essential as borders tighten

If you’re traveling outside the United States this year, here are two pieces of advice: Get or renew your passport now, and think twice before planning a car trip to Mexico or Canada in June.

That’s when we may see the biggest change ever for Western Hemisphere travel. Starting June 1 (unless Congress changes the deadline), Americans will need to show a passport, a passport card or other special document to return to the U.S. by land or sea from Mexico and Canada.

Despite assurances from agencies involved, there may be glitches and delays. Two years ago, the last big change in entry rules – requiring a passport for air passengers returning from Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean and Bermuda – inspired a stampede of passport applications and created confusion at airports. Some travelers waited months for their passports and others just stayed home.

Although passport demand has recently fallen along with wait times – and the State Department has ramped up staffing and facilities – the upcoming change will affect far more Americans than in 2007.

Under current rules, you generally need a passport to enter the U.S. by air from any foreign country. If you enter by land or sea from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean or Bermuda, you may not need a passport, but you do need at least a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship, plus a government-issued photo ID, such as a driver’s license. Children 18 or younger need only a birth certificate for land and sea entry from these areas.

Starting June 1, if you’re arriving from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean or Bermuda by land or sea, you’ll generally have several choices: a passport; a passport card, a new type of ID that the U.S. government began issuing in 2008; an enhanced driver’s license, a new high-tech version offered by a few states (including Washington); or “Trusted Traveler” cards such as SENTRI and NEXUS for frequent border crossers.

There will be various exceptions for land and sea crossings from these destinations. U.S. and Canadian children younger than 16, for example, will need only proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate; in organized groups, the cutoff will be age 18.

Passengers on cruise ships that sail round-trip from a U.S. port may need only a birth certificate and a government-issued photo ID (although the cruise line or foreign countries they visit may require a passport).

You’ll find a summary of the current and new rules at a Web site maintained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, www.getyouhome.gov.

The State Department’s travel Web site, www.travel.state.gov (click on “Passports for U.S. Citizens”), is one-stop shopping for information on passports and passport cards. It has instructions and forms.

If you’re renewing a passport (within five years), you can download the form from the State Department Web site and mail it in. If it’s your first time, you can visit any one of thousands of “passport acceptance facilities,” such as post offices, to get what you need.

Go to a passport agency only if you need your passport in less than two weeks for travel or less than four weeks in order to obtain a foreign visa. You’ll need to make an appointment.

A passport costs $100 for adults and $85 for children younger than 16 (renewals are less); a passport card costs $45 for adults and $35 for children younger than 16.

It’s recently been taking about three weeks to process applications, the State Department says, but allow more time to make sure you get your passport.

The bottom line: A passport gives you the most flexibility; it’s good everywhere. To save money, you might consider a passport card if you plan to cross into nearby countries only by land or sea, or as an extra ID.



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