Have Your Passport Ready, U.S. Will Not Accept Anything Else For Entry

Have your passport ready, U.S. will not accept anything else for entry

By Ken Kaye and Ruth Morris
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted December 18 2006

Don't leave home — and fly to Cancun — without it.

If you're a U.S. citizen, as of Jan. 23, you'll need a passport to re-enter the country, even if you're flying to Mexico, Canada, the Bahamas or other Caribbean nations, places so familiar to Floridians that traveling there seems like a domestic trip.

[]The new rule for Americans returning from those destinations is a departure from the long-standing policy of accepting driver's licenses, voter registration cards or birth certificates as valid forms of identification.

For now, the change applies only to passengers on commercial and private flights, but authorities expect to extend it to cruise ships and private boats as of January 2008.

Imposed by the State Department and enforced by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the new regulation also requires that citizens of other countries in the Western Hemisphere show valid passports to gain U.S. entry, said Zachary Mann, senior special agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The objective: “Prevent unwanted people, such as terrorists, from entering our country,” he said.

In the past year, agents intercepted about 80,000 fraudulent documents from travelers who flew into U.S. airports, Mann said.

Most air carriers already require passports to most international destinations. If a U.S. citizen manages to fly out of the country without a passport, he or she would face major inconvenience upon returning as of January, Mann added.

“You're not going to be denied entry, but you're going to have go through a process where you have to prove without doubt you're a U.S. citizen,” he said.

That likely would involve an in-depth interview and database checks, he said.

For South Florida, the passport rule is expected to have a major effect, considering that about 16 million travelers fly to and from international destinations per year, mostly out of Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Many fly to the Caribbean, Canada and Central America, airport officials said.

For instance, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport has handled about 1.9 million international travelers so far this year. Of those, 1.2 million flew to and from the Bahamas and 450,000 flew to and from Canada, said airport spokesman Greg Meyer.

“People for years have been able to go to the Bahamas by air with a driver's license or voters registration card, but come January, things change,” he said.

Miami International ranks third in the nation for international travel, with 14.2 million travelers last year. More than 4.2 million of those flew to Caribbean cities, said Marc Henderson, airport spokesman.

“It's a good part of our market,” he said.

At Palm Beach International, about 15,100 passengers have boarded flights to the Bahamas and more than 16,300 have flown to Canada so far this year.

It costs $97 and takes six to eight weeks to obtain a U.S. passport, which is valid for 10 years.

Speeding up the process, and receiving a passport in a few days, costs $157.

For most seasoned travelers, the passport rule should pose no hardship and might even shorten immigration and customs lines because U.S. agents won't have to spend as much time verifying paperwork of passengers without passports, said Giuliano Lorenzani, owner of Boca Raton Travel & Cruises.

“Other than trips to countries in the Caribbean basin, you had to have a passport anyway, so this is nothing that comes out of the sky,” he said.

Foreign officials hope the new rule won't discourage U.S. tourists.

Jorge Lomnaco, Mexican consul general in Miami, said he was confident that Mexico's archeological sites and beach resorts would remain a strong draw.

“For those who travel for culture, colonial cities, sun and sand, they'll go anyway,” he said.

The temporary exemption on sea travel was welcome news for Florida's bustling cruise industry, which will have another year to alert travelers of the new requirements. Last year, 4.8 million people embarked on cruise ships in the state.

For now, U.S. citizens need only present a birth certificate, driver's license or some kind of official equivalent, to visit Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean and return.

Debbie Rauch, owner of Great Escapes Cruises and More, a home-based travel agency in Lighthouse Point, doesn't anticipate a lull in cruise business because most travelers seem willing to comply.

“I find that at least 60 to 65 percent of my clients do have passports,” she said, “I don't see it as being an issue.”

Ken Kaye can be reached at kkaye@sun-sentinel.com or 954-385-7911.