As of January 23, 2007, U.S. citizens must have passports when traveling to and from Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean by air. Travelers returning by land or sea will be required to show passports by January 1, 2008. These requirements don't affect U.S. territories like Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam.
If you're part of the 70 percent of Americans that doesn't currently have a passport, these guidelines can quickly help you learn how to get one. Or, if yours has expired, read on for renewal instructions.
Passports for first-timers
To get a passport, you'll need proof of U.S. citizenship (preferably a certified birth certificate issued by the city, state, or county) and proof of identity such as a valid driver's license, government or military ID, or naturalization papers. Social security cards will not be accepted as proof of identity. You also need to fill out Form DS-11. Although the form is available online, don't sign it until you're in the presence of a passport acceptance official.
If you have all the required documents, getting a passport isn't difficult, although it may be cost-prohibitive for some. But, after paying the initial fees your passport is good for 10 years, and then you'll pay much less for renewal.
First-timers must apply in person at a passport acceptance facility, which include post offices; libraries; federal, state and probate courts; and county and municipal offices. You can find the nearest acceptance facility on the Department of State's website.
Children under age 14 must also apply in person, and parents/guardians must show proof of the relationship, including a certified birth certificate with parents' names, an adoption decree with parents' names, or a court order establishing custody or guardianship.
You are required to provide two identical color passport photos, taken within six months of applying. The photos should be taken against a plain white or off-white background, and you should be wearing normal "street attire," without a hat or any other type of headgear. In addition, the photos must be two-by-two inches in size, and there must be between one inch and one-and-three-eights inches from the bottom of the chin to the top of the head. You can have passport photos taken at some acceptance facilities, as well as stores like CVS or FedEx Kinkos.
First-time passports for persons over age 16 cost $97, including a $67 application fee and a $30 execution fee. Passports for children under 16 cost $82, including a $52 application fee, and a $30 execution fee. If you need your passport quickly, it can be expedited for an additional $60.
Passports generally take about six weeks to arrive, but can take longer during busy periods. January through July are busy times for passports, so apply from August to December if you can. If you're traveling within eight weeks, the Department of State recommends expediting your application so you'll receive your passport within two weeks.
Renewing a passport
It's much easier (and less expensive) to renew a passport. If your passport has expired, you can renew it by mail, assuming it was not issued more than 15 years ago, you were over 16 when you got it, you still have the same name or can legally document your name change, and the passport itself isn't damaged. If any of those stipulations aren't valid, you'll have to follow the same steps as first-timers.
To renew your passport, fill out the DS-82 passport renewal form, available online, and attach to it your most recent passport, along with two passport photos and the $67 fee, payable to the U.S. Department of State.
Passport renewals take approximately six to eight weeks. If you are traveling sooner, you can pay to expedite your passport for an additional $60.
Lest the price of passports dissuade you from booking a Caribbean vacation, travel providers are coming up with new ways to attract visitors.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Virgin Islands is promoting a "No Passport Required" discount offer. Through December 31, 2006, visitors to the islands can save a minimum of 20 percent on five-night (or more) stays at participating hotels throughout 2007.