If You Owe the IRS Over $51,000, It Can Trap You in the United States

The IRS and State Department are not required under all circumstances to reverse their passport-snatching if you pay the debt down below the $51,000 threshold.


The IRS wants you to know: If you owe it more than $51,000 in back taxes, penalties, and interest, then under most circumstances it can and will instruct the State Department to not issue you or renew your passport, leaving you stranded in the open-air prison known as the United States of America. (Full passport revocation is also possible.) The rule is part of 2015's Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, and the IRS intends to begin enforcing it now.


You won't necessarily be trapped in the U.S.A. instantly. When you apply to acquire or renew a passport, the tax attorneys at Caplin & Drysdale explain, "the State Department will generally hold such application open for 90 days to allow the taxpayer a chance to resolve his or her tax delinquency or any other certification issues before denying a passport." So you've got that going for you.

A passport is very important indeed (even though it shouldn't be in a free country). Since 2009 it has been necessary even to return from our northern and southern neighbors. And if you want to hold two such precious documents, either to hedge your bets or just to share significant parts of your life between two different sets of arbitrary lines drawn by different regimes, governments are more and more likely to target you.

The righteously salty Kevin D. Williamson at National Review points out something especially awful about this policy: It doesn't even require that your tax liability be in any way criminal. You don't have to have been convicted or even charged with tax evasion or fraud. You merely must owe enough in back taxes plus penalties to cross the $51,000 line. (That threshold will rise with inflation.)

Williamson reminds the IRS and its supposed masters in Congress that "Americans as free people have a God-given right to come and go as they please, irrespective of the preferences of any pissant bureaucrat in Washington. Yes, we curtail people's rights in certain circumstances—when they have been charged with a crime and convicted after due process. Tax fraud is a crime; having unpaid taxes is not."

"Suspending passports in the course of a civil dispute—a civil dispute that may well be in litigation or soon to be in litigation—is banana-republic, totalitarian stuff," he adds, and he's right.

Robert W. Wood at Forbes gives some advice on what to do if you find yourself approaching the threshold of being denied a working passport. "Before a tax debt gets to this stage, the IRS usually sends multiple notices, so you should respond, and keep protesting," he notes. "If you receive an IRS Notice of Proposed Deficiency or Examination Report, prepare a protest before the deadline….A tax debt does not become final if you keep your tax dispute going."

If this eventually fails, then consider "striking a deal with the IRS. It is often not too difficult to get an installment agreement with the IRS to pay your tax debt over time. If you sign one, stick to its terms. Even if your debt is huge, the IRS doesn't call it "seriously delinquent" if you are paying the installments on time."

The Taxpayer Advocate Service, an internal ombudsman of sorts within the IRS, has criticized aspects of the program, after noting (as Matt Welch did at Reason in a 2004 feature) that the IRS has since 1996 been able to do the passport-snatching thing against those who are even $5,000 overdue on child support. As that ombudsman writes on the IRS's own website, there are serious issues with this sort of thing:

Courts have long recognized that the right to travel internationally is a liberty right, protected by the Due Process Clause. See e.g., Kent v. Dulles, 357 U.S. 116 (1958). In the context of passport denial for unpaid child support, courts have found the statute meets due process requirements because it provides for notice and an opportunity to be heard prior to the state agency certifying the unpaid child support to the federal government….

In the context of passport denial for a seriously delinquent tax debt, notice and an opportunity to be heard prior to the certification are limited. The FAST Act only requires two forms of notice to taxpayers who will be certified:

(1) a notice sent to the taxpayer close to or at the same time as the IRS certifies the seriously delinquent tax debt ("contemporaneous notice"), and
(2) language included in Collection Due Process (CDP) hearing notices explaining the potential certification.

Unlike the [notices] in the child support context, currently, the IRS does not plan to provide any additional, direct notice to affected taxpayers beyond the statutory requirements. I believe this lack of notice may not satisfy taxpayers' due process rights under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution because taxpayers do not have a meaningful opportunity to contest the certifications prior to them taking place.

The Taxpayer Advocate Service later noted that the IRS and State Department are not required under all circumstances to reverse their passport-snatching if you merely pay the debt down below the $51,000 threshold.

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  1. At least for a little while you can still sneak across the border and flee. They’re working on walling up that particular escape route.

    1. I know Canada is pretty zealous about checking people coming into Canada is Mexico equally as zealous about filthy ‘murican freeloaders walking/driving into Mexico? Seems like having no identification and getting caught around a border checkpoint could easily win you a free trip into Mexico.

      1. No, not with Americans, but they are with Guatemalans.

        1. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

          This is what I do…

    2. We are in a “papers please” society now. We needed driver’s licenses to ensure that drivers were safe drivers, and we needed passports to ??? document who is from what nation.

      But now, these documents can be taken away from you or denied to you if…

      You are an illegal human, born 20 yards on the “wrong side”.

      You are behind in your taxes.

      You are behind in your child-support payments.

      You lost your temper and called your wife or girlfriend a slut or a whore once, so you are “domestically violent”.

      The list gets MUCH longer if we add “professional licenses” for cutting people’s hair or scratching their butts, or even, scratching your OWN butt, now, it sometimes seems…

      (Exact details dependent on which state you live in, at times).

      I can feel the noose tightening here, folks… Can you?

  2. Now that passports are being used for other purposes besides international travel, we know it was a scam for a National ID.

    Of course, driver’s licenses were long ago used for purposes other than government certification of driving skills and is also being used a National ID.

    No wonder the National ID people gave up pushing for that because they already have two version: the passport and drier’s license.

    1. It is worse than that. Passports are now biometric. So it is a national biometric ID. And a national biometric database that is shared in all sorts of ways with all sorts of people.

      1. Well, let’s try this again…

        “And a national biometric database that is shared in all sorts of ways with all sorts of people.”

        The NORKs… Russians… Chinese… Bulgarians… 14-year-old-hackers-in-Moline (both of them)… your microwave…

  3. Let’s be honest about this: It won’t be long before we have to ask permission to do just about anything.

    OT, but related: Can someone else get as outraged as me about this 5pointz case? No one seems to understand the implications.

    1. What is the 5pointz case?

      1. A quick glance around the internet, it sounds pretty fucked up. Essentially, an artist or artists can use your property to create art and make it his/their property even without your permission because art and culture.

      2. 5pointz being a housing complex or building that was coated in graffiti that the owner ‘whitewashed’.

        1. The owner’s mistake was not instantly removing the graffiti, but instead saying, “I’m going to tear it down eventually, do what you want until then.”

          It resulted in a kind of adverse possession occurring. Yes, really f’d up.

          1. “You didn’t own that.”

          2. So, my city did this same thing with an old bus terminal that had been bought by developers but wasn’t being renovated. They fenced it in and hired an unarmed security guard to watch the entrance just to keep an eye on things. The art produced was beautiful. It was mostly muralists who are already prolific around the city, but some graffiti, too.

            Some thugs showed up one night and beat the guard to death. That was the end of that.

            Give ’em a wall to paint on and they’ll take a life. Sigh.

  4. Sorry Doherty, but real libertarians want the government to have absolute and arbitrary power to decide who gets to cross certain parcels of land.

    1. No dumb ass. The ability to leave the country is not the same as the ability to enter it. You have an absolute right to leave. You do not have any kind of absolute right for another country to let you in. But if they will have you, you absolutely have a right to go there. It is a subtle difference but an important one and the kind that you unsurprisingly miss.

  5. …leaving you stranded in the open-air prison known as the United States of America.

    Like they turned the island of Manhattan into back in 1988, following a 400% increase in crime.

    1. I swear to God, Fist, I thought you were dead.

      1. Yeah, you and everybody else.

  6. Communist Manifesto

    #2. A heavy and progressive or graduated income tax.

    #4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants …

    The situation should be obvious.

  7. It’s somewhat screwed up, but conceding the legitimacy of taxation in the first place, what’s the principled difference between not being allowed to leave the country because you owe $50K in unpaid taxes, and not being allowed to leave the country because you’ve been charged with stealing $50K?

    A flight risk is a flight risk.

    1. What if your only way to get $50k is to leave the country?

    2. This was my thought too. If they did change the law to provide a hearing before any action could take place against a citizen’s passport then I think this might be ok.

      But again I also think of the case highlighted here a little while ago about the guy who owned a multi-million dollar computer business who left CA for NV and had a 10-20 year ordeal trying to get his tax debt resolved. CA had basically tried and it was proved in court to extort a higher tax bill then what owed and since the cost of fighting it was so high most people cave to them. Meanwhile they did everything in their power to ruin his life.

      1. “Meanwhile they did everything in their power to ruin his life.”

        This is one of the MANY-MANY proper functions of Government Almighty, according to Government Almighty!

  8. arbitrary lines drawn by different regimes

    Can we for once have an honest discussion about topics like this without dragging loaded, emotional language like this into it?

    When did Reason go full anarchist?! Because that is the only interpretation I can come up with to explain this language.

    1. Reason didn’t write this article.

        1. Reason didn’t write this article, Brian Doherty did.

          1. Thanks for your tiresome pedantry. I’ve seen the exact same phrasing from multiple other members of the staff, FWIW.

            1. That’s interesting, because a search for “arbitrary lines drawn by different regimes” returns one result from the whole internet.

              1. You must be great fun at parties.

    2. By taking terms that everyone takes for granted and expressing them in a more descriptive manner makes the discussion more honest, IMO. The inability to see past the terminology is why so many people take for granted the legitimacy of certain government actions.

      1. The implication I get from the writer’s use of the phrase “arbitrary lines” is that he believes borders are just a meaningless trifle. Maybe that is his honest opinion, but the events of, well, all of history don’t seem to bear that out.

        1. That history also bears out that borders are arbitrary lines drawn by different regimes.

          (ok, you can quibble about arbitrariness in all instances, but then arbitrariness is a slippery concept)

          1. The border between Texas and Mexico is geographical, is that arbitrary?

            1. Considering the geography has been changed to accommodate the border, as negotiated between the US and Mexican regimes, I think you can make that argument without getting into the weeds about what is arbitrary and historical accident and the like.

  9. All I know is, as a tax attorney who focuses on assisting taxpayers in resolving their problems with the IRS, this program is like the IRS doing free marketing for me!

  10. I’m just old enough to remember a time when you could walk across the border from Mexico into the US without ID.

  11. Brian Doherty used to cover Tax Honesty but he stopped w Aaron Russo’s death in 2006. Since then he has neglected the subject, which shows in this flawed article. Error 1-not everyone is a taxpayer. In fact, very few Americans are. Error 2. The time to challenge the IRS is not when they deny you your passport, but when you file an educated tax return showing you did not earn taxable income in the first place.
    Libertarian think tanks, political parties, etc simply have not spent the time and effort required to understand the US INDIVIDUAL INCOME TAX. Sure, Tax Honesty has made some mistakes, but the lack of scholarly support has meant that the field is dominated by entrepreneurs instead of historians and knowledgeable attorneys.
    Since 2003, Pete Hendrickson , a libertarian tax activist in Michigan, has shown that by filing educated tax returns, using the law as it is written, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, etc, thousands of American workers receive full refunds of all withheld taxes, including payroll taxes, state and federal. But libertarians like Doherty prefer to scare people with articles like this instead of pointing the way to the libertarian ideal-real choice in taxation.

    1. Gaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh.

  12. In 2004 I was in Gross Pointe Michigan for a wedding with my wife and infant son. We had time to kill before flying home so we and some friends drive into Windsor. No request even to see a drivers license on either side. Just a few questions to confirm we were obviously all Americans and then “welcome to Canada / back”. Seems like a lifetime ago. Ironically my infant son was the only one who had proof of citizenship as my wife took his birth certificate Incase she was was asked.

    There used to be the concept of family passports. I always had my own as my aunt and uncle would sometimes take me out of the country.

    1. That was then, this is now.

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  14. By using the language of the Marx Manifesto income tax, Brian and other libertarians defeat their own cause. One does not “owe” or even “pay” income taxes. Demands are made and money taken from you under that duress implied by threats of deadly force. Filing is mandatory and amounts to a forced confession under duress creating the basis for collection by whatever means. These States were the most sought-after real estate in the world long before Populist and Socialist spoiler votes caused the entrenched Kleptocracy to adopt that additional method of looting. The LP platform is our best vehicle for repealing income tax laws, and with them the Nixon anti-libertarian law that has since 1971 subsidized the electioneering of looter parties and bribed the media to attack us.

  15. So, we’re building a wall to keep people IN as well as to keep people out? Buncha statist xenophobes. Maybe xenophobia counts as a disability now, and all the xenophobes can be denied guns, too. But get a monthly check.

  16. Because of the “International Megan’s Law” registered sex offenders can no longer leave the U.S. either because of the system of notification which the U.S. has now imposed on them. They have to notify their own government at least ninety days in advance of their intended travel, tell them their complete itinerary, including which hotels they will be staying in, along with the precise dates of each of their intended stays. The U.S., in turn, notifies the intended countries of visit that “a dangerous sex offender with the intention of victimizing children in his travels” is on his way. The result, otf course, is that most “sex offenders” never get let into those countries. The intent, by the laws author, Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, is that it would effectively prevent Registrants from traveling outside of the U.S.

  17. Here’s a way to fix this situation: PAY YOUR DAMN TAXES!

    Une plastie mammaire pour triter chirurgicalement la pt?se mammaire

    Une plastie mammaire pour triter chirurgicalement la pt?se mammaire

  20. Tidak ada pantat bodoh. Kemampuan untuk meninggalkan negara tidak sama dengan kemampuan untuk memasukkannya. Anda memiliki hak mutlak untuk pergi. Anda tidak memiliki hak mutlak untuk negara lain untuk membiarkan Anda masuk. Tetapi jika mereka memiliki Anda, Anda benar-benar memiliki hak untuk pergi ke sana. Ini adalah perbedaan yang halus tetapi yang penting dan jenis yang tidak Anda rindukan.

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