The document clock is ticking.
Come June 1, you’re going to need a passport (or other government-approved document) to enter the United States, regardless of where you’re coming from, where you call home or what mode of transportation you’re using.
Unless, that is, you don’t.
Between little-publicized loopholes and last-minute legislative efforts, the new rules not only include exceptions but are also part of a process that’s seen more flip-flops than a shift lead in a sandal factory. And at the risk of belaboring the analogy, there’s still time for another shoe to drop.
The bottom line is that determining what ID to carry the next time you cross the border is not unlike shopping for shoes: one size clearly doesn’t fit all.
WHTI: Five years and counting
It’s been a long, tortuous path since the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) was unveiled back in 2004. As part of the proposal, a birth certificate and driver’s license would no longer be considered valid ID for travelers (including U.S. citizens) returning from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda or the Caribbean. Instead, a passport or other “WHTI-compliant” document would be required.
In the years since, the regulations have spawned angry debates, much confusion and a series of deadlines and delays that have exacerbated both. It all came to a head in 2007 when the Passport Office found itself swamped with applications in advance of the then-pending January 2008 deadline. Amid horror stories of months-long delays and missed vacations, Congress voided that deadline and set the current date of June 1, 2009.
That deadline once appeared to be in question. In March, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) stated that although she supports the initiative’s intent, she doesn’t believe the necessary infrastructure is in place to implement it successfully. Raising concerns about chaos at the border and a further decline in cross-border tourism and commerce, she’s planning to introduce legislation that will postpone the impending deadline until June 1, 2010.
The U.S. State Department, not surprisingly, begs to differ. Both U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have certified to Congress that we’re ready to go, says Brenda Sprague, deputy assistant secretary of passports. “We’re ready, our colleagues in Canada are ready and I believe the American people are ready.”
Currently, says Sprague, people applying for passports should expect a turnaround time of four to six weeks for routine applications and two to three weeks for expedited service. That’s slightly longer than earlier this year, she says, due to seasonal demand and a heightened focus on accuracy.
The latter issue, it should be noted, comes in the wake of a recent incident in which a GAO investigator managed to get four passports using fraudulent documentation. That, admits Sprague, “put a hitch in our giddy up.”
A word to the wise
So, what’s a prospective applicant to do? Clearly, it’s better to have rule-ready ID and not need it than need it and not have it. Depending on your travel plans, one of the following three IDs will probably fit the bill. (For more information, visit getyouhome.gov.)
- Passport: The traditional blue book costs $100 for adults ($75 for renewals) and $85 for children 15 and younger. It’s the only one of the three that’s valid for air travel and for travel to non-WHTI countries.
- Passport card: The wallet-sized passport card was developed to offer a less expensive alternative to a traditional passport. Designed primarily for those who cross the border frequently, it features a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip so it can be read wirelessly for faster processing. First-time cards are $45 for adults and $35 for children 15 and younger. However, it’s valid only for crossings by land or sea (not air) and only within WHTI countries.
- Enhanced driver’s license: Comparable to passport cards, enhanced driver’s licenses (EDL) are state-issued driver’s licenses that can also be used for land and sea crossings from WHTI countries. The cards, which are also RFID-enabled, are currently available to residents of New York, Vermont and Washington. (Note, though, that foreign countries, even ones covered by WHTI, set their own rules regarding entry, so confirm EDL acceptance before you go.)
Finally, it’s worth noting that even after June 1, there will still be at least two exceptions to the rules: U.S. citizens 16 or younger returning from WHTI countries by land or sea and passengers on cruises to WHTI countries that start and end in the same U.S. city can continue to travel with a birth certificate and photo ID. (Individual cruise lines, however, may still require a WHTI-compliant ID.)
In other words, you may not need a WHTI-compliant document at all — that is, assuming you never expect to fly, drive to Canada or Mexico, travel beyond WHTI countries, take a cruise that starts in one city and ends in another or reach the ripe old age of 17.
But I wouldn’t recommend it.
Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, .