Passport Requirement To Expand—As Of January 8, Anyone Entering The U.S. By Air Must Carry Document

Passport requirement to expand
As of Jan. 8, anyone entering U.S. by air must carry document
David Armstrong, Chronicle Staff Writer

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

A controversial rule requiring U.S. citizens and foreigners entering the country from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean by air to carry passports will soon go into effect, even as complaints that the rule will slow international trade and befuddle tourists continue to be raised.

The State Department's Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative mandates the use of passports as of Jan. 8 for air travelers from neighboring countries in place of rules that allowed driver's licenses and birth certificates to do the job.

Moreover, as early as Jan. 1, 2008 — and not later than June 1, 2009 — the passport rule will go into effect for travelers arriving by land and sea from previously exempt neighboring countries.

Citing post-Sept. 11 security needs, the State Department says the change is needed to strengthen border security by providing detailed information that will enable the Department of Homeland Security “to quickly, reliably and accurately identify a traveler.''

passports are superior to other forms of ID because they cover more people — including children — than driver's licenses and are more difficult to counterfeit than birth certificates and driver's licenses, especially new passports that include biometric information.

Bracing for the rush

Just 25 percent of U.S. citizens now carry passports. The State Department's Passport Office, which is bracing for a run on applications in the closing weeks of this year, expects to handle 18 million applications for new passports this year compared with 12 million three years ago. Typically, it takes six to eight weeks to get a new passport or renew an old one.

Requiring passports is broadly consistent with Washington's post-Sept. 11 drive to collect information on travelers. On Oct. 6, the United States agreed to a deal with the European Union that would require European airlines to transmit more personal data about U.S.-bound passengers to Washington.

National security needs appear to have trumped concerns that requiring passports for travelers going to and from friendly neighboring countries is cumbersome and costly.

As the Jan. 8 deadline for implementation of the first phase draws near, Canadian officials are especially worried the rule could slow that county's bustling $1.2 billion in daily trade with the United States.

“Given the volume of travel and trade, we might not be as ready as we'd like,'' said Marc Le Page, Canada's consul general in San Francisco. “We might collapse from our regulations. Hopefully, January plays out uneventfully.''

At a meeting at the Canadian Consulate on Tuesday, an official from the Chamber of Commerce & Industry in Bellingham, Wash., voiced worries that the passport rule would hamper easy border crossings in his region by casual tourists who decide to travel on impulse.

The passport rule could also disrupt the transnational commuters common in border regions, said Ken Oplinger, president and CEO of the Bellingham chamber, who lives 250 yards from the border and whose wife commutes to her job in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Oplinger said state-issued driver's licenses could work just as well as passports to establish travelers' identities. “And the technology platform for licenses is already in place,'' he said.

Smaller, cheaper cards

Another alternative to passports could be smaller, cheaper travelers' cards, such as the plastic, wallet-size Nexus card Oplinger carries. It can be swiped at border crossings and enables the holder to bypass long lines at customs and immigration stations, he said.

According to a study released in August by the Conference Board of Canada, a business group, “nearly 7.4 million trips by Canadians to the United States may not occur over the next four years because of (the new rules). Slowdown at the border may also affect the flow of goods and impact just-in-time delivery.''

Tourism officials in Caribbean countries, which are heavily dependent on Americans and other tourists to fuel their economies, have also said they are worried that the new rule will mean some Americans simply may stay home. On Sunday, Prime Minister Perry Christie of the Bahamas called for the United States to at least delay implementation of the rule for air travelers until 2009, when land and sea passport rules are set to kick in.

Simplifying the process

For some leading travel and tourism experts, however, such concerns are exaggerated, if not beside the point, given Washington's plan to enact the first phase of the rules in less than three months.

“It makes sense to be prepared as soon as possible,'' said Roger Dow, president and chief executive of the Travel Industry Association, the leading U.S. travel trade group.

“Having a passport simplifies the travel process for everyone,'' Dow said. “We strongly encourage Americans and international travelers to get a passport now.''

For San Francisco's Chris McGinnis, editor of Expedia Travel's Trendwatch, “All the squawking about the new passport requirement is much ado about nothing. Passport requirements elsewhere in the world do little to hinder tourism from neighboring countries.''

Some countries, notably the 25 members of the European Union, have all but eliminated passport control at their national borders. But McGinnis said acquiring and using a passport is only minimally disruptive for those nations that continue to check them, as the United States and most other countries do.

“If you are even a modestly frequent traveler, the cost of a passport is the cost of doing business,'' McGinnis said. “In most cases, passport fees are modest compared to the overall cost of a business or vacation trip.''

New and renewed U.S. passports cost $97 per person, with an additional $60 charge to speed up processing.

“I don't think the passport requirement will markedly reduce arrivals to the U.S.,'' McGinnis said. “For Canadians, a passport costs $87, about as much as they'd spend for a nice meal or a tank of gas in San Francisco.''

For international trade watchers, the biggest potential problem will come in 2008 or 2009, when the passport rule starts to apply to travelers arriving by land, including truck drivers at the wheels of big-rigs who worry about backups at land border crossings.

The American Trucking Association, a trade group, supports a national transportation worker background check and ID card but doesn't think truck drivers should have to carry passports, according to Tim Lynch, a senior vice president of the group.

“The issue, obviously, is security,'' Lynch said. “We don't want to get truck drivers so inundated with multiple credentials that it makes it almost impossible for commerce to move.''

New rules

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative will require all airplane passengers entering this country to carry passports as of Jan. 8. The rule will be extended to cover people arriving by land and sea by June 2009 at the latest.

Critics of the plan fear it could snarl trade and travel in red tape, especially between the United States and Canada, the world's largest trading relationship.

The United States and Canada generate $1.2 billion in trade per day, including $450 million at the Detroit-Windsor, Ontario, border, the busiest in the world.

In 2005, 32 million Americans visited Canada and 36 million Canadians visited the United States.

Source: Chronicle research

E-mail David Armstrong at