Passport card vs. passport book: What documents do I need to cruise?

Sep 24, 2021

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You’re traveling internationally on your next cruise, so you go to order a passport … and realize that the process isn’t as straightforward as you thought.

The U.S. State Department can issue you a passport book or a passport card. Which do you need for your cruise, and do you actually need a passport at all? Cue the hand-wringing.

If you’re deciding whether to get a passport card vs. a passport book, and you can’t bear to wade through the fine print, the safer choice is always to get the passport book. A passport book will serve as acceptable proof of identification and citizenship at any cruise port, airport or border crossing.

But if you are hoping to save money by not purchasing unnecessary government-issued IDs, read our FAQ below to discover how a passport card compares to a passport book, and which travel documents you absolutely need for your next cruise.

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What is a passport card?

Unlike regular U.S. passports, which come in the form of a booklet with a blue cover, a passport card is a wallet-sized card, similar to a driver’s license. It’s an alternative form of government I.D. to the more familiar passport book. You can use it as official proof of your identity and U.S. citizenship for travel and other purposes.

Can I use a passport card to go on a cruise?

A passport card is an acceptable form of documentation when you’re returning to the U.S. after travel within the countries that are included in the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. The catch is that it is only valid for travel by land or sea.

(Photo by Evgenia Parajanian/Shutterstock)

You can use a passport card as legitimate identification on your cruise if you’re sailing exclusively to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda or Caribbean countries. As you’ll be re-entering the U.S. through a seaport, the customs and immigration officials at the port will recognize your passport card as a valid travel document.

Can you use a passport card to fly or cruise internationally?

Passport cards are not accepted identification for air travel, and you cannot use them to fly internationally. If you have to fly between your cruise homeport and the U.S. – including flights to or from Canada for an Alaska or Canada/New England cruise – you cannot use a passport card as your sole identification.

Note that a passport card is considered a Real I.D., so you can use it in lieu of your driver’s license to fly domestically to a U.S.-based cruise homeport.

How much does a passport card cost?

A passport card costs $65 for adults and $50 for children under age 16. Renewals cost $30. Passport cards are valid for 10 years (5 years for children).

What’s the difference between a passport card and book?

The biggest difference between a passport card and a passport book is that a passport book is valid for international air travel and any travel beyond the Western Hemisphere, while a passport card is not. If you are flying from the U.S. to a foreign country to begin your cruise, or flying home after a cruise that ends internationally, you cannot use a passport card and must show a passport book.

Passport books are larger than passport cards and have multiple pages for customs officials to stamp or affix visas. They are also more expensive. A passport book costs $145 for adults and $115 for children under 16; renewals cost $110.

Both passport cards and books are valid for the same length of time (10 years for adults, 5 years for children) and can be used in lieu of other state-issued IDs. Either option requires a current photo.

Do I need a passport card or book for my cruise?

If your cruise involves international flights, you will need a passport book – not a card – with no exceptions.

Cruises out of U.S. homeports have more options. Specifically, as part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, closed-loop cruises – those that depart and return to the same U.S. homeport and only visit destinations in Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean – do not require passports. Both passport cards and passport books are valid identifying documents for these sailings, but you also have a third option.

What’s the alternative? Instead of providing a passport, you can show proof of identification (such as a driver’s license) and proof of citizenship (a birth certificate) to board your cruise. You’ll need two documents instead of one, but you’re more likely to have these already.

For example, if you’re sailing roundtrip from Miami and visiting the Bahamas, Mexico and Jamaica, you technically do not need a passport card or book. The same is true with a cruise sailing roundtrip from New York to Bermuda, or from San Diego to Ensenada and Cabo San Lucas in Mexico.

You do need to show proper identification, but that documentation is not required to be a passport.

The exception to this rule is if the country you’re visiting by cruise ship requires a passport. For example, Martinique requires cruise passengers to show a valid passport to come ashore. You would be allowed onboard your ship without a passport, but you would miss out on one of the ports of call.

Should I get a passport card or book for my cruise?

Whether you should get a passport card or book is a separate question to whether you need one.

You don’t need a passport to sail from Florida to the Bahamas. But if you get sick or your cruise ship has a technical issue, and you’re forced to disembark and end your cruise early in Nassau, you will need a passport to fly home to the U.S. You don’t want to have to find a nearby consulate or embassy and apply for an emergency-use passport, especially if you or a family member is sick or hurt.

We recommend that whenever you are traveling to an international destination, you take a passport book, so you are more prepared for unexpected situations.

You might also want to have a passport on hand for certain excursions. Any tours that take you from one country to another, such as from Alaska into Canada, or from one Caribbean island to a neighboring one, may require a passport card or book and not accept your driver’s license or birth certificate. If you’re considering any such day trips, you’ll want to have a passport on hand.

Does my child need a passport card or book to cruise?

Travelers of any age who are flying internationally to or from their cruise will need a passport book. This includes children and babies.

For closed-loop cruises from the U.S. to Mexico, Canada, Bermuda and the Caribbean, children under age 16 only need to show a valid birth certificate. (Consular reports of birth abroad or naturalization certificates are acceptable alternatives.) They do not need an additional photo I.D., nor do they need a passport card or book. Older teens will need to show a valid passport or the same two forms of I.D. required of adults.

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Featured image by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy

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