New U.S. Passport Rules Are Set -- Finally

April 1, 2008

After what has often seemed like a never-ending odyssey, the new land and sea rules for the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) -- a government mandate aimed at tightening border security -- are finally, well, final.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of State released the complete details of the WHTI initiative on Thursday and announced an effective date of June 1, 2009. At that time, a passport or other WHTI-compliant document (see below) will be required for entering or re-entering the U.S. through all land and sea points of entry.

The announcement means that cruise travelers now have 14 months to make preparations for the new travel requirements. Interestingly, though, the specifics of the completed initiative reveal that the final requirements for cruise passengers will actually be less stringent than those imposed on land travelers. That's because passengers on any itinerary that begins and ends at the same U.S. port -- such as a roundtrip Ft. Lauderdale cruise to the Caribbean or a roundtrip Seattle itinerary to Alaska and British Columbia -- will be exempt from the WHTI document requirement.

Passengers on these "closed-loop sailings" will still need to present a government-issued photo ID (such as a driver's license) and proof of citizenship (a birth certificate, certificate of naturalization or similar documentation). Those requirements are already in place for cruise passengers traveling to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda or the Caribbean.

The 2009 rules will, on the other hand, impact cruise travelers not sailing roundtrip voyages to and from the same U.S. city. So for those cruising on a Boston to Montreal voyage, or a Los Angeles to Vancouver sailing, a passport -- or other approved secure document denoting both citizenship and identity -- will be required.

In an explanation of the WHTI Final Rule we are told that: "Because of the nature of roundtrip cruise ship travel, [the Department of Homeland Security] has determined that when U.S. citizens depart from and re-enter the United States onboard the same cruise ship, they pose a low security risk in contrast to cruise ship passengers who embark in foreign ports."

We don't entirely understand the government's laxness on these roundtrip U.S. sailings. Though such cruises may seem an unlikely choice for unsavory characters looking for a method of ingress and egress, two different vessels were recently used by criminals in apparent escape attempts less than a month apart. On Feb. 29, murder suspect Derron Williams was captured by police after he boarded Carnival's Celebration in Jacksonville for a cruise to the Bahamas. Charles Lai, an accused drug kingpin, officially made "cruising criminals" a trend on March 23 when he was apprehended by authorities onboard Norwegian Dawn after the cruise ship docked in Miami. Perhaps if the alleged suspects had been made to show a passport before boarding they would have been identified and apprehended more quickly.

Despite the reprieve, it is still strongly recommended that all travelers -- including cruisers -- obtain a U.S. passport. A passport is mandatory for entry into most foreign ports, and anyone sailing on a cruise that embarks from a foreign port will be required to have WHTI documents to gain re-entry into the U.S. effective June 1, 2009.

Besides a U.S. passport, other approved WHTI-compliant documents include the soon-to-be-issued U.S. passport cards or an enhanced driver's license (EDL). Passport cards are limited-use, wallet-size ID's that allow re-entry only by land or sea and can't be used for travel outside the Western Hemisphere. The Department of State is currently accepting applications for the passport cards -- which cost $45 for adults and $35 for kids, compared to $100 and $85 for a conventional U.S. passport book -- and the cards are expected to be available sometime this spring.

An enhanced driver's license denotes both citizenship and identity, and contains security features to help prevent counterfeiting and facilitate the entry process at land and sea ports. Only Washington State has begun issuing EDLs, but Vermont, New York and Arizona are currently working to offer EDLs in the near future.

--by Michael Potter, Assistant Editor