Updated February 21, 2020
The rules regarding whether U.S. citizens need a passport for their cruises are a bit confusing. You might be driving to an American homeport but visiting foreign countries on your trip -- do you need a passport to cruise or not? While it's more obvious what to do when an international flight is involved, you might be surprised to know that certain U.S.-based sailings don't require a passport. But just because you don't need a passport doesn't mean you should leave without one.
Let us clear up some of the mystery about when you do and don't need a passport to go on a cruise -- and what happens in an emergency if you're traveling without one.
You Need a Passport for Cruises To and From Foreign Ports
First, the easy part: Passports are required for any U.S. citizen whose cruise embarks or disembarks in a foreign country, including Canada. They're also required for sailings that begin and end in different U.S. ports. You also will need a passport for certain shore excursions -- such as Alaska's White Pass and Yukon Railway train ride and day trips to smaller Caribbean islands -- that cross a land or sea border into a foreign country. Additionally, it's a good idea to check individual ports' entry requirements, as you might need a visa as well.
Exception: Closed Loop Sailings
Here's the confusing part: Cruisers are mostly exempt from having to bring passports if they are on "closed loop" sailings -- which start and finish in the same U.S. homeport and only travel to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda. If you choose to travel without a passport, you still need to show a government-issued photo ID (such as a driver's license) and proof of citizenship (a certified copy of your birth certificate or similar documentation) to get back into the U.S. after your trip.
Again, be sure to check the entry requirements of the cruise ports you plan to visit. Just because you don't need a passport to return to the U.S. does not mean that you don't need one to enter one of the foreign countries on your itinerary. For example, Martinique and Guadeloupe require cruisers show passports to enter the port, even on closed-loop sailings.
What's the downside of cruising without a passport? If an emergency arises, only an official passport will allow you to fly home from a foreign port. But what will actually happen if -- due to an unexpected injury or illness, or a mechanical failure on the part of your cruise ship -- you end up stranded in another country with only your birth certificate and photo ID? The answer is you can return home -- it will just take more time and effort to get the proper documentation to do so.
Essentially, you will need to obtain a temporary passport for reentry into the United States -- even if you opt for a ferry instead of a flight. Although only valid for a short period of time, temporary passports are available for those who need to travel quickly but don't have time to wait for a standard passport, for which expedited shipping is not available outside the U.S. It typically takes only a few days for limited validity passports to process after you apply at the U.S. embassy or consulate abroad.
In cases where a ship forces disembarkation in a foreign port, the cruise line will work directly with the international immigration department to assist passengers with passport processing and whatever means of transportation they need to take home.
Scrambling for a temporary passport can create mounds of paperwork and plenty of headaches, and the time it takes to process is never guaranteed. Isolated incidents have left passengers stranded for longer than anticipated, and -- unless you can see the glass half full -- it's not a pleasant scene.
Bottom Line: Cruise With a Passport
Even if you plan to stick to closed loop sailings, we still recommend you invest in a passport before your cruise. The $145 fee ($115 for minors) is worth shelling out from a "peace of mind" standpoint. Though you can get home without a passport if you get stranded in port, the hassle of obtaining a temporary passport on top of making arrangements for last-minute travel isn't worth saving a few bucks by not investing in a real passport. In our minds, a dollar per month for 10 years of security is a steal.