As cruising continues its limited restart, there's one essential document that all Americans will have to present, at least for sailings in early summer 2021. And no, we're not talking about COVID-19-related documentation, such as vaccination or negative PCR tests, although most lines require some form of proof of that as well.
It's a more basic document: a passport.
At least to start the summer, most cruises open to North Americans are sailing from other countries, such as Greece, Iceland, St. Maarten, the Bahamas and Bermuda. While the latter three locales are islands fairly close to the U.S., they are still foreign countries and require passports to visit.
(Of course, this could change if the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention drops or adjusts its Conditional Sailing Order for a July 4 restart from American ports, as cruise lines have petitioned.)
If you are eyeing the international cruises on offer and don't have a passport -- or even if you do and want a refresher -- here are seven tips to keep in mind.
1. Plan early.
Getting a passport through the regular process can take between 10 to 12 weeks, particularly because the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed certain government services. You should start immediately if you're thinking about an international cruise at any point this summer.
(If you haven't applied yet, keep reading -- there are more options if your trip is coming up sooner).
2. Figure out where your closest application acceptance facility is.
First-time passport applicants, children under 16 and people who have had their passports lost or stolen must apply in person at an approved facility. In many communities, this is your post office, or your library or local government offices. (You can search for the closest facilities on the
.) For passport services, you need an appointment. Go in person, rather than mailing in your application, as it's helpful to have a second set of eyes on your paperwork to make sure you aren't leaving anything out.
3. Pay attention to requirements.
The full list of what you'll need for your application is on the State Department website. If you were born in the U.S. and it's your first passport, you will need a birth certificate or some way to prove your citizenship. Tracking down all the documents before you apply will save you some stress as you go through the process. Printing the forms online and filling them out before you have your appointment is a good idea.
Passport photos also have certain requirements, which are also listed on the State Department site. Rather than trying to figure it out yourself at home, it's worth finding a local photo shop that specializes in taking passport photos. They will automatically size the photo to the correct dimensions, make sure that you aren't wearing glasses, have the correct background and direct you to have a neutral expression. No selfies or social media filters are allowed. Even your local drug store can do this for you, and sometimes mailing services also have offer passport photos.
4. Consider expediting.
You might be surprised with the length of time that the State Department considers "fast" or expedited; the site says that four to six weeks is a quick turnaround. Considering that many new cruise line itineraries in 2021 have only a few months lead time, people might be feeling rushed to get things done. Expediting does come with an extra $60 fee, but it's worth the peace of mind.
5. Make sure everyone in your group has one.
There's no better way to connect with friends and family after the long separation of the pandemic than going on a cruise. But before you have your heart set on that reunion, ask everyone in your party if they have a passport, particularly for any kids who are going. There's nothing more stressful than having a set date, putting down the money and then someone in your group realizes too late that they don't have their documents.
6. Consider last-minute passport services.
If you leave your passport to the last minute, there are still options, although we recommend doing things early to avoid the stress.
If you are within 72 hours of your international flight or within 10 days of visiting a country that needs a visa, you can go online to schedule Urgent Travel service; if no appointments are available, they will ask you to call. These services are done at major American centers, such as Philadelphia or New York, and so definitely not as convenient as a regular application. Keep in mind, too, that the agencies are prioritizing emergencies, such as when a family member overseas dies, as opposed to leisure travel.
Once you get your appointment, you will need to go in person and produce proof that you are traveling within 72 hours. You will also have to pay the expedition fee, as well as the regular application fee.
7. Check your passport expiration date.
Many countries require your passport to be valid a full six months after your date of travel. That might not be the case in Greece or some of the other countries that are offering cruises, but it's just good practice to keep an eye on your expiration date so you don't get caught short. (Even if the country you are visited doesn't have the requirement, a country that you're transiting through might.) Save yourself the stress and renew your passport well before you need it.