Financial Resource Center


Travel Documents Take You Around the World

by Casey Mysliwy / June 15th, 2010

Whether it's for business or pleasure, preparing for your first excursion outside the U.S. is exciting. But before you can explore another country, you first need to obtain the travel documents necessary to get there. With passport books, passport cards, and foreign visas to choose from, how do you figure out which documents will get you to your destination—and back home again?

Check country requirements first

Before you apply for any type of travel document, determine entry and exit requirements for the country or countries you plan to visit. Many countries require only a U.S. passport, but others call for additional documents, like a visa, onward/return ticket, or tourist card. For the most up-to-date requirements, check the U.S. State Department's country-specific information page, or contact the U.S. embassy or consulate of the country you want to visit. Some countries have specific rules regarding passport validity dates. For example, visitors to Costa Rica must have a passport valid for at least 30 days after arrival. To visit France, your passport must be valid for at least three months beyond the period of stay. Be aware of these types of rules before finalizing any travel plans. Your length of stay in a particular country also can determine which documents you will need. While the U.S. issues passports and passport cards, your destination country issues visas and other special documents required for entry. Many countries require you to have a visa for stays longer than 90 days. Contact the country's U.S. embassy or consulate to find out how to obtain one.
Many countries require only a U.S. passport, but others call for additional documents.
Once you're familiar with the rules and requirements of your destination, you can apply for the travel documents that will meet your needs.

Passport books: good for global travel

The passport book is valid for international travel by air, sea, or land. For adults, the passport book costs $100 and is valid for 10 years; for minors, it costs $85 and is valid for five years. A passport book is required as part of the entry process to most foreign countries, but the document also ensures that you'll be able to re-enter the U.S. when you return from abroad. "Unless you're only interested in traveling within the U.S., everybody should apply for a passport," says Scott Mast, an owner of Burkhalter Travel in Madison, Wis. "It's really the best form of identification for people." It's a good idea to apply for your passport as early as possible, since processing times can vary. "Somebody would want to allow themselves about four weeks to receive a passport once the application is made," says Mast. You can shave that time down to about two to three weeks by paying an additional $60 for expedited service. You may have to wait longer if you apply during peak times. "For instance, travel to Europe in the summertime is always heavier," says Mast. "In that case, add another week, possibly two weeks, to the processing period." To avoid delays, check current application processing times and plan accordingly.
Many countries require you to have a visa for stays longer than 90 days.

Passport cards have limits

At $45 for adults, $35 for minors, and with the same 10- and five-year validity periods, the passport card may seem like a perfect alternative to the more expensive passport book. But before you apply for the card, understand that it lacks the book's flexibility. "The limits have to do with the scope of your travel," says Mast. You can use a passport card in place of a passport book to re-enter the U.S. from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda at land border crossings or sea ports-of-entry. And although you can use the card instead of a passport book to enter many of these regions, remember that each country may have unique entry requirements. The passport card is not valid for international air travel, and does not meet entry or exit requirements for any regions except those specified. So when is the passport card a useful option? "It's only a good alternative if you only travel within North America," Mast says. "You just have to determine that that's all you can be doing. Obviously, you can go across those borders with the regular passport, as well." So if you plan to travel globally, or if you're simply not sure where your future travels will take you, the passport book probably is the smarter choice.
A passport book usually is required as part of the entry process to most foreign countries.

Getting your passport

Whether you apply for the passport book, passport card, or both, the application process is the same. Here are the steps you'll need to follow if you're a first-time applicant:
  • Fill out a passport application. You can complete and print the form online, but do not sign the application yet.
  • Gather application materials. "As long as you have the right documentation in order, it's pretty easy," says Mast. To apply for your passport, you will need:
  • Apply in person at a passport acceptance facility or regional passport agency. Bring your application and all necessary materials. An acceptance agent will ask you to sign your application at this time.
If you already have a passport and need to renew, you'll need to follow a different process. Check the passport renewal instructions for more information. Keep in mind that special requirements apply to minors younger than age 16 and minors ages 16 and 17. For more information about application requirements, read the State Department's passport application guide. So what are you waiting for? With the right documents in hand, you'll be on your way to the trip of a lifetime.
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