Before you head to the airport, you need to make sure your travel documents are in order. The last thing you want is to be held up at customs because something’s missing or expired, and no one likes being subject to “enhanced screening.” Here’s what you need to take with you, and how to make sure it’s up to date.
For those of us in the United States, we’re not really accustomed to carrying travel papers at all times. Usually a government-issued ID card or driver’s license is enough to prove our age or identity to someone. If you’re flying or traveling internationally, there’s more to the picture. Let’s take a look.
Make Sure Your ID Is Accurate and Up-to-Date
Take a look at your driver’s license or ID card. Make sure it’s accurate, and there are no inconsistencies with the rest of your travel documents. Also, make sure it’s not about to expire (or expired.) Expired ID can definitely get you held up at a border crossing, especially if you don’t have a backup form of identification. I’ve seen people stopped at the airport because their ID card was expired, or close enough to expiration that foreign customs had reservations about them.
If you’re flying domestically, your ID is all you’ll need to bring, but even visiting Canada, Mexico, or islands in the Caribbean require more identification. Birth Certificates used to be accepted at those border crossings, but that’s no longer true. You’ll need proof of both your identity and your citizenship, which means either a US passport or passport card.
Traveling Internationally? Get Your Passport, or Get It Renewed in Time for Your Trip
If your travel plans take you abroad, you’ll need a passport book or a passport card. You can see the differences between the two here. If you don’t have either, your best bet is to just get a passport book—it’s acceptable for all types of travel, and won’t expire for 10 years. If you do apply for a new passport, make sure there’s enough time to get it processed and mailed to you before your trip. Fill out the form online, then submit your application by mail, or at post offices and courthouses. Applications usually take 4-6 weeks, barring any delays due to the busy travel season. If you’re in a hurry, you can pay $60 for expedited service (2-3 weeks). If you need it even faster, apply in person at a State Department Passport Agency. Turnaround can be as fast as a few days, but restrictions apply and you have to do everything in person. You may also need to show proof of your travel plans, like a boarding pass or hotel booking. Many of the same rules apply if you’re renewing a passport. Current processing times are always posted on the State Department’s website.
If you already have a current passport, keep an eye on its expiration date. Many countries, including most European countries, won’t let you in if your passport expires within three to six months of your departure and return dates. Check the State Department’s Country Information database for where you’re headed for specific rules. You may want to get your passport renewed, just to be on the safe side. If you have the option, apply or renew in August-September, or December-January. November is a tough month since holiday travel is in full swing, and the warm months of the spring and summer are almost always packed with travelers.
If You Need a Visa, Apply Early
A visa is a special card or stamp in your passport that grants you entry to a specific country. Visas are best obtained far in advance, and depending on the country, the process can be complicated. Americans traveling to most European countries don’t need a tourist visa, but you may be surprised which countries do. Head over to the State Department’s travel portal and type in the name of the country you’re planning to visit. The information page you get will show you if a visa is required.
For example, it’s not surprising Russia and China require American tourists have tourist visas (that you’ll have to apply for through their respective consulates), but so do Turkey and Australia. Japan, on the other hand, doesn’t, as long as you’re visiting for less than 90 days. Russia’s process is so changeable that Rick Steves has an entire how-to dedicated to the topic. Don’t be scared off though—some countries, like Turkey, allow you to apply online and get an “e-visa” to print out. Make sure to check so you’re not surprised.
International Student IDs and Driver’s Licenses
Your local driver’s license or college student ID won’t cut it abroad. If you’re a student, you can prove it, and you’d like to make use of student-friendly services like discounts on transportation, lodging, tourist spots, and technology, you’ll need an International Student Identity Card. It’s internationally recognized, includes some basic trip insurance, and can even be used as a pre-paid credit card. It’s extremely useful, especially if you plan to study abroad. You can search the ISIC database for specific benefits where you’re going to see what you’re eligible for.
If you plan to drive while you travel, you’ll need an International Driver’s Permit. Many countries don’t recognize US driver’s licenses. Applying for an IDP is easy enough: contact the AAA or National Auto Club. Be careful though, they’re short-term permits and may expire before it’s time to come home. Also, check with your auto insurance company to see if you’ll be covered. In general, you won’t be unless you’re visiting Canada or Mexico. However, car rental services abroad will sell you the minimal coverage required in most countries. Follow the State Department’s driving tips to make sure you don’t get fined or jailed for getting behind the wheel.
Tickets, Rail Passes, and Boarding Passes
Of course, your tickets and boarding passes are critical too. Don’t assume you’ll find a place to print your return tickets—print them and make copies at home. Depending on where you go, you may be required to show proof of your return date when you enter. It’s better to just keep your tickets on-hand and together, in a safe place.
If you’re planning on doing some sightseeing, do your homework before you leave and see if there’s a rail system to get you around easily. In most of Europe and many Asian countries, you can pick up a rail pass before you leave home that offers unlimited passage on various local train systems. All you have to do is show your pass when necessary. The same applies for local subway and metro systems. Find out how to get the travel cards or documents you need when you arrive so you’re not fumbling when you need to actually get somewhere. Your hotel or hostel may be able to help you out as well.
Protect Your Documents
Finally, keep all of these documents safe and protected. Don’t hand them over to anyone who doesn’t actually need them for official business (it’s not uncommon for train conductors to take them if you’re traveling overnight across borders, or for hotel staff to hold on to yours your first night.) Never hand over all of your documents at once unless you’re crossing a border and talking to a customs official. Make photocopies of everything, and use them whenever you’re not dealing with an official who needs the real thing. In many cases, photocopies are just fine for unofficial ID. Also, you don’t have to buy special passport wallets or money belts, but they definitely help. You may also consider keeping dummy wallet on you, so if you’re mugged you can hand that over while the real stuff is safe.
If something does happen to your papers, contact your closest US embassy or consulate to have your passport replaced, immediately contact your banks to cancel cards and see what they can do for you, and contact your airlines for duplicate tickets. If you have a photocopy or digital photograph or scan of your passport and other travel documents, getting replacements is easier and faster. If you’re really stuck and without much left to your name, you can recover from that, too, it’ll just take more time.
When it comes to traveling, a little homework and the right documents lined up early makes a world of difference. You don’t have to plan for every possible situation, but at least make sure the basics are covered. Your trip shouldn’t turn into a nightmare over something like an expired passport or lost rail card.