Now You Really Need a Passport


As Matt noted yesterday, the State Department has proposed requiring Americans returning from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, the Caribbean, and Panama to present their passports. According to the A.P. report, it also wants to make citizens of those places bring their passports when they visit the U.S., "prompting Canadian officials to announce they might reciprocate."

This news puzzled me, since the last time I flew to Canada, in October 2003, I was turned away at Reagan National for want of a passport and had to go home, retrieve the little blue booklet, and take a later flight. After that incident, I remembered (a little too late) that the previous time I had visited Canada, in June 1999, they let me in with just a driver's license but warned that I'd need my passport to get out. (I had my wife FedEx it to me.) So what exactly is new about the new policy?

Evidently, the difference is that the current policy requires proof of citizenship, which need not be a passport. Contrary to the A.P. account, the State Department says a driver's license is not enough (although you do need some sort of photo ID in addition to proof of citizenship). But "a certified copy of your birth certificate" will do. To me that seems harder, but presumably many U.S. citizens who travel to Canada or Mexico don't have passports–only 20 percent or so of Americans do–and find it easier (and cheaper) to obtain certified copies of their birth certificates. (Is there some other reason to prefer birth certificates?) Or maybe A.P. is right, and some (many? most?) customs officials have been letting people through with nothing but driver's licenses, despite the official policy.

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  1. Before 9/11, I never needed a passport OR a drivers license to cross the US-Canada border either way (though I did keep a drivers license with me just in case). They’d just ask if I was a US citizen and why I was crossing.

    Though I don’t doubt my ultra-Anglo complexion and features helped in that regard.

  2. Some people, are *extremely* passport-phobic. There were many on that would rage at the suggestion that they get passports for travel and would call those that suggested otherwise ‘passport pushers’.

    I somehow imagine most of them to be Republicans. 🙂

    I grew up in a border town (US side). It’s a pretty hard blow for these places that depend on Canadians to come over for shopping/touring/dining. The occassional VERY long lines on the bridges and the rare but well publicized customs/immigration fiasco’s discourage our Canuck cousins from crossing the boarder to drop those loonies (canadian dollar coins for those not close to the great white north) and this ain’t gonna help.

    And at nearly $100 for a new passport, the price for passports for families can be a true hardship for US citizens living in these areas. Maybe the fees can be made tax deductable?

  3. Doesn’t bode well for the fake Nike clothing dealers, pharmaceutical sellers, and the guys who grab you and pour tequila down your throat then charge you three bucks for it down in Tijuana. And what about all the people who go down there to see the municipal parade where the garbage trucks blow their horns and burn rubber all the way down Avenida Revolucion?

  4. When I went to Victoria a couple of years ago, they wanted me to have a passport. I didn’t have one, so they lectured me for a bit and then let me through.

    Now I do have a passport, so whatever. On the scale of horrifying things the government is getting up to lately, this ranks pretty low. It’s in the ‘irritating and stupid’ range, rather than the ‘how long can I stand to keep living here’ range.

  5. Never mind, next will be the internal passport and you won’t be able to get 50 miles from home without going through a checkpoint.

    It’s for the CHILDREN, you know. It takes a village.

  6. About 8-9 years ago I was chastised by the canadian border patrol for trying to cross into Canada with merely a driver’s license. They made it a point of mocking me by asking if thought I was just headed to California or something ( I was crossing into Canada through Michigan via car). They informed me that I needed proof of citizenship, either a passport or a birth certificate.

    It always struck me as odd. Whenever I traveled to Europe I always used a passport, yet I never even considered it for Canada. And I would never have even thought about using a birth certificate for travel. They seem harder (or at least no more difficult) to obtain than a passport anyway.

    What’s the advantage of not getting a passport ?
    If some proof of citizenship is required, why does it matter whether or not its a passport (as opposed to say a birth certificate)

  7. It’s not really harder to get a passport. I think the key difference is that passports expire. So you invariably don’t have a current one when you need it. Also, you can only have one. so if you forget where you put it or are afraid of losing it they’re a pain. Lastly they come in one inconvenient size.

    You can have as many proofs of citizenship as you want, including as many birth certificates as you want. I have both a wallet-sized birth certificate and a Canadian citizenship card that I can carry in my wallet. And I still have a full-sized birth certificate filed away that I could use were I to misplace both of those.

  8. *blink*

    Is requiring a passport really all that awful…?

    Is this ^ statement enough to permanently kick me from the (lowercase-L) libertarian club?

  9. I cut across Windsor from MI to NY and back each year. I have never carried a PP or BC. Twice (once exiting MI, once entering MI) since 2000 the boarder guard gave me a hassle. BTW is there some reason for the “You are stupid, I need you to acknowledge how stupid you are” attitude? I thought that was the hallmark of local police and rent-a-cops.

    I think this is more than mere annoyance. It will prove quite costly in its chilling effect on casual commuting as well on international trade. Already millions of dollars are evaporating every hour at the boarder due to long wait times (commercial trucking in particular). The PP requirement provides zero additional protection, it’s just another feel good, we’re-being-inconvenienced-therefore-we-must-be-safer, measure.

    I for one lament the passing of the worlds longest unguarded boarder. The US/CA boarder of the late 20th century was one of mankind’s great achievements. We are all poorer for it’s passing.

  10. I grew up near the Canadian border and as far back as I can remember you needed both the drivers license and birth certficat or the passport to go back and forth, since a drivers license only indicates residency rather than citizenship.

    Last month, I flew to Germany without having to go through any passport control on the European end. That struck me as rather odd, since I don’t remember that happening before.

  11. Warren and Serafina,

    It’s probably different at different crossings; my mom lost my birth cert and SSC when I was little, and I didn’t get a passport till I was 18, so I know I had none of these the numerous times we crossed at Sault Ste Marie as I was growing up.

    Also, the crossing at Niagara Falls never asked me for anything more than a license before 9/11.

  12. I drove to Montreal with some friends in 2002 and we only needed driver’s licenses to get in and out of Canada.

  13. Could determined people get into the country just by crossing at a location where there is no border check? Or dummy up good fakes. There is no database(thankfully) that gets referenced.

    This is just to make it seem like we’re “more secure”, protecting the country from those who already live here, and follow the rules.

  14. I feel much safer knowing that sexy coeds returning from spring break in Cancun will have to show passports. Not to mention all those grandmothers driving north to buy medicine for their osteoporosis.

    Don’t you know we’re at war here, people?

  15. at the time that I met my girlfriend, she lived in Canada and I in Oregon, so cross-border visits were not infrequenet for the first year or so of our relationship. My experiences (circa 1998-99) were as such:

    – The border station used by Greyhound didn’t care one way or the other as long as you had a valid driver’s license from one nation or the other
    – Ditto my gf’s experience driving (i was sans auto at the time)
    – PDX and Victoria airport customs would let us both in and out with just a license, though I one time got warned by a PDX official that I might have a hard time getting back in without a ‘port (though as it turned out it was never an issue)
    – Vancouver wouldn’t let me in without a passport. To return to the US, not only did I need a passport, but I also had to have $20 canadian for an “airport beautification fee” – and it had to be cash. no pay, no board. this fee seemed only to apply to US-bound passengers. Vancouver also has the most aggressive drug dogs of any airport I’ve ever been to.

  16. Oh, and no doubt with these passport checks we’ll finally be able to stop people from bringing illegal drugs across the border. Not to mention gardeners and nannies.

  17. Using a passport is really not the most onerous thing in the world. Hell, it’ll probably speed up the border crossing once people know what exactly is required and aren’t trying to figure out if a driver’s license is enough, or if they need a birth certificate, etc.

  18. Thoreau
    yeah, it solves all those problems.
    Once again us homegrown law abiding citizens are required to jump through more hoops. All the while illegals(undocumented workers) get carte blanche because there is no policy for them. Just as ridiculous as 81 year old grandma Jones in a wheelchair, body cavity searched by the TSA.
    It really doesn’t even warrant any kind of response.

  19. I live near Detroit and when I go across the river to Windsor, Ontario they let me through with just a drivers licence and student ID. They complain, saying I need a birth certificate, but they always let me through.

    Mostly they just joke around about where they assume I am going to go drink, since I look young and the drinking age in Ontario is only 19. Customs on both sides could seem to care less.

  20. Living in Seattle, I’ve driven up to Vancouver any number of times, and even since 9/11, have been able to get in and out with a driver’s license (and, presumably, Washignton plates).

    A few years back (still post 9/11), my GF and I flew to Puerto Vallarta for a week. Forgot my passport, but was able to get there (and back!) with my driver’s license and a half-page Affidavit of Citizenship (“Do you intend to commit any terrorist acts? [ ] Yes [ ] No”).

  21. “Is there some other reason to prefer birth certificates?”

    Well, there is that little tracking chip that will be placed in US passports now, so I’d say yes.

  22. “Americans in the know will be wrapping their passports in aluminum foil.”

    Cha-ching! There we go.

  23. I just went into Canada from Minnesota about 89 months ago with my mother and we didn’t need a passport or birth certificate, although we brought the latter.

    I guess it depends on where you’re crossing, who’s checking, what day it is, etc.

  24. I grew up 20 miles from mexico and used to cross the border often to buy various things and to drink alcohol cheaply in mexico. All I needed to get back across was my drivers license of course to get a license you need a birth certificate and other form of ID. I have a couple of problems with this policy.

    At least with mexico most of the mexican customs agents you talk to when going into mexico will not remind americans to bring a passport. Then what are we going to do? Not let obvious american citizens back in, what will the waste of time be when you forget your passport.

    How is requiring a passport going to make us any safer? Why do I need a passport to re-enter a country I am a resident of? Who issues passports and how hard is it to get one? Why didn’t politicians ask these questions instead of making another rubber stamp reform that will make it look like they are protecting us but will waste my time and actual only keep non-dangerous working folks out of the country….

  25. This time last year, I made a large number of crossings back and forth at Michigan and New York crossings. I even had a modestly weird situation because my state of temporary residence is different from my driver’s license state, plus I was driving a Canadian rental car.

    Driver’s license was all I needed (though once I may have had to hand over my social security card — you know, the one that’s never supposed to be used as a national ID card). The Canadian guys were much more strict with me than the American ones, perhaps simply because I’m not Canadian.

  26. You need a birth certificate to get a DL, but it need not be American. DL’s in no way relate to citizenship. Lots of people on temporary or expired visas have American DL’s. Exchange students love them because they are much cheaper to get than European ones. In the past, they could be exchanged for their more expensive, European counterparts. Sweden cracked down on this when they realized they were accepting Arabic library cards.

  27. It’s just security theater again, folks. It will have no effect on actually making us more secure, but it will annoy and inconvenience lots of people, so we look like we’re being protected. Living in Detroit I used to go over to Windsor for dinner, but now think twice about it because of the chance of getting stuck in a long line.

  28. I used my FL voter registration card as proof of citizenship one time flying into Toronto International. The Customs guy was fascinated that we registered our party affiliation, and that I was a Libertarian (unlike Americans a lot of Canadians have heard of the Libertarian Party).

    On the return trip I just had to tell the INS guys at Orlando International verbally that I was returning to my residence in Fl and that I was an American citizen. No documents, no nothing.

    Course, that was early ’90’s. Must have been that “earlier more innocent time”. There has actually always been a requirement by both governments that you have “proof of citizenship”. They were rarely requested.

    I don’t recall ever showing any papers any of the times I have driven across the border. It was usually pull up to booth, roll down window, “where w’ya born?”….”purpose of visit”…”move on”.

  29. I crossed the border to Vancouver just 3 weeks ago. Having been hassled about not having a passport or birth certificate with me in January 2002, I made certain I had my birth certificate and driver’s license with me this time back. No ID was required to go into Canada. It was clear on the way home that many people only had their driver’s licenses. My partner and I each had birth certificates and driver’s licenses and got through much quicker than most people got through.

    Now, having said that, both the requirement for the birth certificate and the passport are silly. A driver’s license will do, but asking for another document doesn’t hurt. The reason that it is silly? All of the said documents are relatively easily forged. Not to mention that there should be some sort of cost/benefit analysis of this tactic and perhaps refine it so that it is A) effective and B) less burdensome on the innocent citizens and companies that hire the lawmakers and border patrols.

  30. I dunno. I have a hard time getting het up over requiring a passport at the border of the country. I find it more galling to have to show a drivers license to get on a damn plane within the US. Plenty of people who have no right to be in the US have a valid US drivers license. But showing ID at the airport doesn’t do a damn bit of good.

  31. I have a passport, but would my birth certificate do me any good? Considering it’s Egyptian (I have a translated one) and my citizenship isn’t designated as American on it (I’m naturalized), I think I’m forced to use my passport.

  32. Isaac,

    Same here, though there was this one time when I crossed into with a group of my cousins in their dad’s SUV on the way to the “Canadian ballet” for a bachelor party. If I remember correctly Canada was annoyed about something at the time and was checking vehicles closey. Had to pull over and sit through a full inspection of the vehicle. Nothing came of it except to waste our time. But that was worst experience I ever had in crossing.

  33. I think this idea sucks. Yeah, you really need nothing to get in and out of Canada right now. The only trouble I ever had at the border did not relate to ID, but to pot seeds on the dashboard of a friend’s truck. We were very lucky not to have been harassed by Americans, who would certainly have locked us up in doublesecret detention, but by Canadians who simply questioned us for an hour about whether there were serious quantities of pot in the truck. Of course there weren’t, or we would have stayed home and smoked it. They said they were going to get a dog to search the truck, but at the last minute decided not to. They were just bored. Of course, if it had been American customs, we certainly would have been convicted of Federal possession just for the seeds. In the future, be more careful, that’s a lesson I learned.

    But ID? The Canadians have never given a crap about ID. Everyone here who says that the drivers license isn’t proof of citizenship is overthinking it. Yeah, the license doesn’t prove citizenship. But most Americans don’t know that. I didn’t even know that until I went to graduate school with foreign nationals of resident alien status who had licenses indistinguishable from mine. So if you show them the license, speak like an Anglo native of one of the border regions (which I am), and insist that it’s a license, what more do you want? They’ll let you through. Every single time.

    These days I sometimes drive from the East Coast to Detroit and go through Canada. Cross at Niagara during rush hour, they don’t want to see any papers at all. No time. Where you going? Detroit. Stopping in Canada? To buy gasoline, maybe. Go ahead.

    And on the way in, all Detroit customs ever wants to know is whether that’s really my car, and do I get nervous if they start tapping on the trunk with a stick? I think they’re checking for illegal immigrants stuffed in there or something. There never are, unless I’ve unknowingly picked some up at a service plaza. But I never get asked for proof of citizenship, or if I do I just offer the license again and look confused. No problems, not ever.

    So this is a very serious change here. Your typical Detroit native does not even know what proper ID would be, let alone have it. And the Canadians probably don’t either. Making people carry passports (that expire! and cost money!) could seriously screw crossborder shopping and entertainment. And you know, I don’t know if perimeter security is even worth a crap for stopping terror anyway. That border is long. The real terrorists can just cross in the woods somewhere in the thousands of miles that nobody lives in.

  34. So, maybe I’m late to the party on this one, but I just read that Tom Ridge is on the board of directors of a company that makes RFID devices for the US military.

    I’m sure it’s purely a coincidence that the former Secretary of Homeland Security is on the board of a company that could earn substantial profits from this new homeland security policy.

  35. I have never set foot in an international air terminal without a passport in hand, regardless of where I was going. So I guess if you live someplace where going to Canada involves boarding an airplane, then yeah, the rules would be the same.

    But for those of us who live (or used to live) within easy driving distance of the Canadian border, crossing with only a drivers license (and frequently crossing without even being asked for that) was a routine experience.

    Sure, _technically_ they might have insisted on proof of citizenship, but I never saw it actually _happen_ to an American or Canadian citizen until after 9/11. And there was a period of several years when trips to Canada were a weekly experience for me.

  36. Mo

    Don’t you have a naturalization certificate issued by the US govt.

    Actually most Americans seem quite ignorant of citizenship laws. A lot, for example, do not realize that a lot of foreigners live in the US as resident aliens and have no interest in obtaining US citizenship. When you spend much of your life living outside the US, marry a non-citizen and have children born in both countries you get a pretty good education on the subject.

    As I said, the law has always required proof of citizenship (birth cert., naturalization cert. or passport). It’s just that until recently it has rarely been requested.

    I’m not sure but I believe the govt issues some kind of document for US citizens who were born to US citizen parents outside the US.

  37. Yes, the U.S.
    Department of State issues a Certificate of Birth Abroad or a U.S. embassy can issue a Report of Birth Abroad of a United States Citizen.

  38. Thank you.

    I did know they issue Certificate of Death Abroad or a Report of Death Abroad of a United States Citizen, since my father died in Canada. It was necessary to close out his VA benefits.

    Minor point, this work is actually done by Consulates.

    There is a Consulate in every Embassy but they are also located in major cities all over the world (not just capitals).

    Consulates are business offices in a way, and are not, like embassies, the territory of the Govt that owns them. Consuls and Vice-Consuls enjoy only limited diplomatic immunity.

    When you travel internationally, you are well-advised to be aware of the closest US Mission (either consulate or embassy) along your route.

  39. Every single time I crossed the border into the US ( I am Canadian) as the passenger in a car I was completely ignored by customs. Not only did I not need ID, I didn’t even need to claim not to be a KGB agent. Although admittedly the last time was quite awhile ago (well before 9/11) and I am extremely white looking.

    Simon Blackstone

  40. Actually one place where I do remember going thru a lot of shit crossing the border was on the Greyhound bus. For some reason agents on both sides of the border have all kinds of time to go over bus passengers.

    On the other hand the times that I crossed on the train were a breeze. Because the inspection was done on the go, as it were. I’m not sure if there is a train acros the US-Canada border any more.

  41. I’ve never had to show a license or *anything* when driving across the US/Canadian border (last time I did it was March 2004). But flying across, well, that’s like flying across a real border, with passport checks and everything. I always have my passport either way.

    My wife grew up in a town right on the Maine-New Brunswick border, where crossing the border was as remarkable as crossing the street. It’s a poor town – she says she wouldn’t be surprised if zero percent of the population already has a passport (her dad never had one and still doesn’t have one). The new passport rules are going to be quite onerous for the large families that are now going to have to shell out hundreds of dollars just so they can go about their business like they always have.

  42. Today, not only did my hometown paper [URL=]endorse the new passport policy,[/URL] it actually called for implementation of national IDs. The paper did admit that such mechanisms involved reductions in liberty, but asked “is that really so much to pay for increased security?” I was so disgusted, I almost lost my breakfast.

    Three questions not asked or answered by the Santa Cruz so-called “Sentinel”:

    1. Will the passport policy and the national ID card actually increase security, or are they effectively just placebos, more useful in controlling the domestic population than hampering foreign terrorists?

    2. What ELSE besides the cards themselves will be necessary to implement a “national ID” scheme that can have any effectiveness at all? Barriers and checkpoints? Random pedestrian and traffic stops to ask for ID? Requirement to show national ID when paying for travel arrangements or other targeted purchases?

    3. Are there any alternative approaches that would make us safer from terrorism without making us less free?

    Failing to ask, much less answer, such questions as these is, in my opinion, an abuse of First Amendment Press Freedom which will help insure that, eventually, the First Amendment will also be given up as a “small price to pay” for increased security that never materializes.

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