Passport Laws and Border Entry Rules

Learn about the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative when traveling to Canada, Mexico, and elsewhere.

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People traveling to Canada and Mexico need to know about the new passport laws and border entry rules contained in a federal law called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI). The WHTI is designed to strengthen America's borders by requiring passports and proof of residency at points of entry into the U.S. -- border points where passports had traditionally not been checked (for example, when driving into Michigan from Canada). Under the WHTI, Americans traveling to any destination within the Western Hemisphere -- including Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda -- are required to take a few extra steps on their return. The following guidelines summarize the basic requirements of the WHTI and how the law affects you. (To learn more about other laws affecting you when you travel, see Nolo's Travel Law section.)

What is the WHTI?

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) is a set of new passport laws and travel requirements that was rolled out in two phases. Phase 1 of the program went into effect on January 23, 2007 and affected air travel into the U.S. from other Western Hemisphere countries (such as Canada, Mexico, Caribbean nations, and the Bahamas). Phase 2 went into effect on June 1, 2009 and affected entry into the U.S. at land and sea ports from within the Western Hemisphere.

The goal of the WHTI, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is to strengthen border security while facilitating entry into the United States for U.S. citizens and legitimate international travelers.

Returning to the United States by Air (WHTI Phase 1)

Since early 2007, all U.S. citizens -- including newborns, infants, and children -- returning to the United States from any international location are required to present a valid U.S. passport. There are limited exceptions to this requirement, including the following:

  • U.S. citizens on active duty with the U.S. Armed Forces may present their military ID and travel orders.
  • U.S. citizen merchant marines traveling in conjunction with maritime business may present a U.S.-issued merchant mariner document.
  • Pre-approved travelers entering the U.S. from Canada may present a NEXUS card, so long as the card was used at a NEXUS kiosk at a Canadian Preclearance airport. (For more information about NEXUS cards, visit the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's website at www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/trusted_traveler/.)

Lawful permanent residents returning to the United States must present a valid permanent resident card or other evidence of permanent residence status.

Returning to the United States by Land or Sea (WHTI Phase 2)

Beginning in June 2009, all U.S. citizens returning to the United States by land or sea must present one of the following documents to gain entry:

  • U.S. passport
  • U.S. passport card
  • enhanced driver's license
  • NEXUS card
  • SENTRI card, or
  • FAST card.

U.S. Passport Card

The passport card, a cheaper alternative to the passport, was made available under the WHTI. The passport card can be used in lieu of a passport to enter the U.S. from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda at land border crossings or sea ports-of-entry. The passport card may not be used when entering the U.S. by air. For more information about the U.S. passport card, visit the U.S. Department of State's website at http://travel.state.gov/passport/ppt_card/ppt_card_3926.html.

Enhanced Driver's License

An enhanced driver's license denotes both identity and citizenship and can be used as a cross-border travel document to enter the United States by land and sea only. Four states are currently issuing enhanced driver's licenses: Michigan, New York, Vermont, and Washington. For more information about enhanced driver's licenses, visit the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website at www.getyouhome.gov/html/EDL_map.html.

Trusted Traveler Programs: NEXUS, SENTRI, and FAST

If you cross the U.S. border by land or sea frequently, you may want to participate in one of the Trusted Traveler Programs: NEXUS, SENTRI, or FAST. Travelers who are pre-approved under the NEXUS, SENTRI, or FAST programs can take advantage of expedited travel through dedicated lanes when entering the United States by land. The NEXUS card is designed for travel between the United States and Canada, the SENTRI card for travel between the United States and Mexico, and the FAST card for commercial truck drivers between the United States and Canada or Mexico. But any of the three cards may be used at all United States land and sea ports of entry. Each of the Trusted Traveler Programs has its own set of application requirements. For more information about NEXUS, SENTRI, or FAST, visit the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website at www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/.

Other Valid Entry Documents

If you are returning to the United States by land or by sea, and you fall into one of the following categories, an alternative form of identification may be presented:

  • children under 16 traveling with their families
  • children under 19 traveling with a sport, religious, social, or school group
  • Native Americans
  • U.S. citizens on cruises within the Western Hemisphere that depart from and return to the same port
  • lawful permanent residents
  • U.S. military personnel traveling on official orders, or
  • merchant marines on maritime business.

Visit the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website at www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/ for information about the alternative forms of identification that may be used.

Returning to the United States From a U.S. Territory

U.S. territories are considered part of the United States, so travelers returning from any of them (including Guam, Puerto RICO, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Swains Island, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands) do not need to present passports upon re-entry. However, any previous requirements, including the presentation of a valid photo I.D., are still in effect.

Remember, it's always wise to check the entry requirements for the foreign country you are planning to visit, as well as U.S. government websites to check that your information about re-entry into the United States is up to date. You can also read more about the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's WHTI website at www.getyouhome.gov.

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