Passport Laws and Border Entry Rules Under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative

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

People traveling to and from Canada, Mexico, and other destinations in the Western Hemisphere need to know about 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. In the past, passports were not traditionally checked at some borders, like when driving into Michigan from Canada.

Under the WHTI, Americans traveling to certain destinations within the Western Hemisphere—including Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda—are required to have certain documents 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 section.)

What Is the WHTI?

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) is a set of passport laws and travel requirements. 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.

Entry Into the United States By Air

U.S. citizens entering the United States by air can present a valid:

  • U.S. Passport
  • Trusted Traveler Program card (NEXUS, SENTRI or FAST) (see below)
  • U.S. Military identification card when traveling on official orders, or
  • U.S. Merchant Mariner document when traveling in conjunction with official maritime business.
Be aware that children are required to present their own passport when traveling by air. Also, an Indian/tribal card can't be used for air travel.

Lawful permanent residents of the United States must present a valid Permanent Resident Card though a passport is not required.

Entry Into the United States by Land and Sea

U.S. citizens entering the United States by land or sea can present a valid:

  • U.S. Passport
  • Passport Card (see below)
  • Enhanced Driver’s License (see below)
  • Trusted Traveler Program card (NEXUS, SENTRI or FAST)
  • U.S. Military identification card when traveling on official orders
  • U.S. Merchant Mariner document when traveling in conjunction with official maritime business, or
  • Form I-872 American Indian Card, or (when available) Enhanced Tribal 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.

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 from Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean by land and sea only. Only a few states issue enhanced driver's licenses. For more information about enhanced driver's licenses, visit the Department of Homeland Security website or the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.

Trusted Traveler Programs: NEXUS, SENTRI, and FAST

If you cross the U.S. border frequently, you may want to participate in one of the Trusted Traveler Programs: NEXUS, SENTRI, or FAST. 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. Each of the Trusted Traveler Programs has its own set of application requirements.

Other Valid Entry Documents

In some cases, if you are returning to the United States by land or by sea, and you fall into a certain category, an alternative form of identification may be presented. For example, U.S. and Canadian citizen children under the age of 16—or under 19, if traveling with a school, religious group, or other youth group—need only present a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship. Visit the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website for information.

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 ID, are still in effect. It's recommended that travelers carry a government-issued photo ID and copy of their birth certificate.

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.

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