Pass The Passports, Please

All right. You need a passport to go to Canada or Mexico. If you fly. Or if you go after next January – maybe. But not if you’re under 15 years old. Unless you fly. Got it?

In the latest pronouncement from  the Department of Homeland Security, we learn of yet another twist in the new passport regulations.

It started out pretty simple. Everybody would need a passport to get into the United States – by land, by sea, by air. American citizens, non-citizens. Everyone. From anywhere except U.S. territories: Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands etc.

But of course it had to be phased in. So, as of last month you need a passport to fly back from Mexico or Canada, but not to drive or take a ferry. (I don’t know what happens if you drive to Canada, wreck your car and try to fly back. I’ve driven in Montreal, and I believe this is entirely possible. Anyway, let me know if you have to try it.)

Any confusion about passports and modes of transport ought to go away by next January, when the passport rule is supposed to kick in whether you fly, drive, float or ride a mule across the border. Everybody will need one.

Except now we learn that the rule won’t apply to children aged 15 or younger crossing the border by land or sea. They will need only birth certificates. But children who fly will need passports. And so will adults. By January 2008. Except maybe the deadline will be extended.

I know that stringent new passport regulations were recommended by the Sept. 11 commission as a means of tightening national security, and I certainly see the wisdom in that. And I understand that Canada and Mexico are alarmed by the potential loss of tourism income when only 27 percent of U.S. citizens have passports. What I don’t understand is why this has to be so complicated.

Here’s the bottom line, in my view. If you don’t have a passport and you can afford the $97, apply for one right now. It’s $82 for children under 16. If you have children and you can afford it, get passports for your kids.

It costs $67 to renew your passport – and you can do that even if it has expired, as long as it was issued in the past 15 years when you were over the age of 16 and you can turn it in with your application.

Do this now. The U.S. Passport Agency was overwhelmed by applications before the first set of rule changes took effect last month, and fell behind its usual eight-week turnaround period. I can’t imagine what it will be like before things change again next January – or whenever.


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