Travel Documents Explained

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Thorough planning for the type of travel documents needed is key to stress-free domestic and international travel. To travel internationally you will need appropriate government-issued identity documents allowing individuals and/or groups to travel across international boundaries. These documents are used as proof to other governments that an individual is a legal citizen permitted to leave and re-enter their home country legally. Some travel documents may also contain applicable visas with entry and exit stamps acquired when leaving and entering foreign countries. The main types of travel documents needed by U.S. citizens for domestic and international travel are listed below.

Domestic Travel Documents

Domestic travel document requirements are often less involved than their international travel document counterparts. There are multiple ID options to choose from as an adult, but different standards do apply to individuals under the age of 18, as noted below.

At the present time, the ID presented by an adult to board a domestic flight should be one of the following:

  • State issued photo ID card or  driver’s license
  • Current and valid Passport
  • Military ID with photo
  • Permanent resident card
  • Border crossing card
  • State, Federal, or Tribal Identification card

For children under the age of 14:

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) states that children under 14 are not required to present any form of ID at TSA checkpoints. However, some airlines may require a minor under 14 to show a birth certificate for proof of age. In any event, it’s wise to carry a certified copy of your child’s birth certificate to avoid complications.

For children between the ages of 15 to 17:

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) states that minors aged 15 to 17 are not required to present any form of ID at TSA checkpoints. However, unlike children 14 and under, many individual airlines do require some form of photo ID in addition to a birth certificate as proof of age for children 15 to 17 years of age. In most circumstances, School IDs or Library cards are usually acceptable, but since each airline has different rules for this standard it’s best to check with the airline.

Real IDs

The Real ID Act sets forth regulations pertaining to security, authentication and issuance procedures surrounding state-issued driver’s licenses and IDs which was implemented by Congress in May 2005. This Act requires that state-issued IDs and driver’s licenses be accepted by the Federal Government for official purposes (including boarding commercial airline flights, entering federal establishments and entering nuclear power plants) as defined by Homeland Security.  This Act denies the use of state-issued IDs and licenses for use in official purposes from states that do not meet, or are not compliant with, these federal standards.

At present, the timeline for complete compliance to the Real ID Act does not take place until 2018, when every state must follow the standards set forth by Homeland Security. If a state is not compliant by that time, the IDs and licenses issued by that state will not be accepted, and other compliant identification will be required – such as a valid U.S. Passport. Learn more about Real ID.

Birth Certificates

Birth certificates are issued by the state, county or local municipality where an individual was born and are an official record of that individual’s birth. A birth certificate proves a person’s identity and citizenship as well as where and when they were born. If you don’t already know, you’ll soon discover that a certified birth certificate is needed for most legal purposes you’ll encounter throughout your lifetime, such as:

  • Enrolling a child in school and sports programs
  • Enlisting in the Military
  • Obtaining a driver’s license
  • Marriage (in some states)
  • Obtaining a Social Security Card
  • Obtaining a U.S. Passport
  • Proof of identity for a new job

Obtaining your birth certificate, or the certificate of an immediate family member, can be done in a variety of ways, depending upon the record availability and ordering regulations of the issuing agency:

  • Order online – if the agency offers online service, they will typically show that on their website along with a link to their authorized online ordering service. In most cases, VitalChek.com is the officially authorized service providing secure, convenient online ordering for hundreds of vital record agencies nationwide. Plus, if you need the certificate in a hurry, you can request express courier shipment (like UPS) for quick delivery as well as door-to-door tracking of your document.
  • Order by phone – check the agency’s website for the proper phone number to place orders, if that method is offered.
  • Order by mail – while this method typically has the least expense, it can take much longer to receive your certificate (depending upon the agency’s turnaround time).
  • Order in person – if you live in the same area as you, or your family member, were born, this may be a feasible option for obtaining your certificate.

Please Note: If ordering a birth certificate for a child born less than 6 months ago, you may need to request it from your county’s health department instead of the vital records office. Check ahead to make sure you know the correct agency to order through, as each state may have different rules and regulations.

Passports and Passport Cards

A passport is a certified government document that provides proof of one’s identity and/or citizenship. This document allows travel abroad and re-admittance to a traveler’s home country. Getting a U.S. passport and keeping it current can save you time, money and comes in handy for last-minute trips!

A U.S. passport is required for U.S. citizens traveling between the United States and all international destinations including countries in the Western Hemisphere, such as the Caribbean, Canada, Mexico, etc.

What’s the difference between a U.S. passport book and a U.S. passport card?

  • The U.S. passport book, or standard passport, allows for all international travel including international flights.
  • The U.S. passport card allows re-entry  into the United States from Mexico, Canada, Bermuda, and the Caribbean via land border crossings and sea ports-of-entry. While more convenient and less expensive than a passport book, a passport card cannot currently be used for international travel by air.

Visas

A visa is authorization by a government to enter and stay within their country under certain conditions, usually with a set time limit and parameters surrounding the reasons for the visit. Visas are stamped in an individual’s passport, or other legal travel document, to signify they have permission to enter and travel to and/or within a specific country.

Depending on the location being visited, reason and length of your trip, a travel visa may be required for both entry into and exit from the country you plan on visiting. While not every international destination requires a visa, there are over 270 countries offering visas to the citizens of the U.S., and several different types of visas attainable, depending on your reason for travel.

There are several different types of visas for travelers; however, the two most common are for personal travel or tourism, and for business travel.

  • For Personal Travel
    A personal travel or tourist visa is for individuals visiting a country for reasons of leisure,  vacation or to visit friends or family. When utilizing this type of visa, the traveler is not permitted to perform any type of business while in their destination country.
  • For Business Travel
    A business visa is for individuals planning on participating in business meetings, negotiations, discussions, or similar activities. This type of visa is not sufficient for individuals looking to become employed or gain temporary work assignments in a foreign country.

To acquire any type of visa, you’ll first need to determine if a government requires a visa to gain entry to their country. There are many countries that are visa-free and do not require a visa to enter or travel within that country. A great resource to learn the most up-to-date information about whether a visa is required is U.S. Department of State’s site.

To apply for a visa, you must either go through the local consulate or embassy of your desired destinations, or you can use a visa expediting service. You should learn what the visa requirements are at your destinations before contacting them since each country will have their own visa regulations and procedures.