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Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative
Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt

First: The Passport Requirements - who needs a passport, for what, and when?

Previously: The Big Cruise Exception - yes Congress was being Congress, they wrote in a big "except..."

Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt - "just the facts, ma'am..." No you won't be left stranded overseas if you miss the ship!

Passports play a role in providing for the security of the United States, which is a very serious subject. With such serious subjects naturally come strong opinions, and sometimes the passionate expression thereof. Generally, this is a healthy thing, and I applaud those who appropriately participate in such endeavors. Unfortunately, there have been documented instances where ideology has taken priority over truthful reporting. The purpose of this set of pages is to report the facts in a manner unbiased by ideology.

What good is having an exception to a passport requirement if a passenger is unable to return home early from a cruise by air in the case of an emergency? We've all read stories of passengers who have had to return home during a cruise. Sometimes due to illness at home, one's own illness during the cruise, or some other unforeseen emergency, the need arises to leave the ship, head to the nearest airport and fly home.

But ::GASP:: the WHTI says I need a passport to return to the United States by air! And I'm cruising (with the full approval of the United States Government) with just a birth certificate and driver's license! Whatever can I do?

Fortunately, the same laws and rules that require you to have a passport to enter the US by air also provide for a waiver to the passport requirement in the case of an emergency. Taken directly from the WHTI Final Rule (Section VI(F), Page 95):

F. Individual Cases of Passport Waivers

The passport requirement may be waived for U.S. citizens in certain individual situations on a case-by-case basis, such as an unforeseen emergency or cases of humanitarian or national interest. Existing individual passport waivers for nonimmigrant aliens are not changed by the final rule.

But is this really the case? Why have we read horror stories of cruise passengers stranded for days, and having to spend hundreds of dollars to have temporary passports issued by overseas Embassies? To be honest, I don't yet have the answers to all these questions. Based on the research I have conducted, the best answer seems to be that not all the players (passengers, government officials, and travel industry management) are yet fully aware of the rules.

In seeking the answers to these questions, I went right to the top. I wrote to Colleen Manaher, the Director of the WHTI. Below are a summary and copies of our correspondence.

To Ms. Manaher:

The WHTI has provided an exception to the passport requirement for cruise passengers who meet certain criteria. For those certain passengers without a passport, who find themselves with an emergent need to return home, what provisions are there to accomodate this need?
From Ms. Manaher:

A cruise passenger in such a situation will also have in their posession a valid proof of citizenship, likely to be a copy of their birth certificate, and a photo ID. In the event that a passenger must return to the US, those documents would be sufficient for reentry. As soon as an examining CBP officer is satisfied that the traveler is a U.S. Citizen, they will be admitted into the United States.

I was just about to publish this information when the story broke of the Cortes family who found themselves in exactly this situtation. Their experience concerning passports did not at all match what Ms. Manaher described. So I accepted her invitation to ask more questions:

To Ms. Manaher:

Thanks for your reply, but what about these Cortes folks? (Yes, I am paraphrasing heavily here!)
From Ms. Manaher:

Air carriers are directed to work with the appropriate CBP Port Director at the port of entry, or CBP Preclearance station to facilitate travel to the US... Air carriers have been provided with this guidance, as well as the contact information for CBP ports of entry.

US Embassies and Consulates may also be of help and can issue passports if the citizens apply, and may be able to further facilitate travel back home.

And as always, a passport "is still the preferred document of choice for international overseas travel."

So... my own conclusion here is that the WHTI Final Rules handle the situation, and Ms. Manaher tells me that their folks have policies and procedures in place, and that the air carriers are aware of these policies and procedures and even have contact information for the CBP personnel who can handle the case. Perhaps like many other situations we have seen, it is taking some time for everyone in the "real world" to catch up to direction from the top.

Bottom Line: If I were cruising without a passport, I would make myself very aware of the rules, policies and procedures discussed here and in the WHTI Final Rules document. If I found myself needing an emergency flight back home, I would keep asking questions until I found someone who finally had the right answers. I think I would even take a printed copy of these letters from Ms. Manaher with me too...

Disclaimer: For those (and I know they are out there) who will want to pull their hair out upon reading some of this information, please take comfort in the fact that I have always, and continue to advise that obtaining a Passport is always the best option. In my opinion, it is well worth the expense. Having said that, it must be recognized that there are those for whom it may not be worth the expense. We are all entitled to our opinions, and if the thought of a US citizen cruising without a passport in hand makes your blood boil, then I encourage you to exercise your invaluable right as a citizen to petition your representatives to change the laws and rules as you see fit.

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Updated May 26, 2008. Comments?
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