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Originally published January 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 23, 2008 at 11:24 AM


Got the border-crossing blues? Here's what you need to know

Confused about what identification you need to cross the U.S.-Canada border? Here are some answers to frequently asked questions. Q. What's going on? A...

Seattle Times Travel staff

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Confused about what identification you need to cross the U.S.-Canada border? Here are some answers to frequently asked questions.

Q. What's going on?

A. The United States has been tightening its border security in recent years and is trying to standardize the documents that people use. Eventually a passport — or one of a few other forms of federally approved forms of identification — will be required for all travel outside the U.S., including a weekend driving trip to Vancouver, B.C., or ferry to Victoria. That's likely to start in June 2009.

In the meantime, all adult travelers crossing the border by land and sea must have proof of citizenship plus photo ID to cross the border starting Jan. 31. All air travelers already need a passport for flights to Canada and all other foreign countries.

This is part of a new U.S. law, called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which sets the rules for entering (or returning) to the United States from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean for which there have been laxer rules.

In practice, U.S. border inspectors have been asking for ID but it hasn't been required nor standardized under law. Starting Jan. 31, it will be.

Q. What does land/sea crossing mean?

A. It's any way you cross the border other than by a plane. This means driving in a car, taking a bus or train. It means hiking, walking or bicycling across the border. Sea crossings include by ferry, cruise ship and private boats, from kayaks to yachts.

You need ID for all such trips.

Q. Can I use my driver's license if I'm driving to B.C.?

A. No, not on its own. A driver's license works as identification, but it doesn't establish your citizenship. Starting Jan. 31 you must be able to prove both your identity and citizenship.

To prove your citizenship, you must show the border inspector a passport, birth certificate or naturalization certificate — something that proves your U.S. citizenship.

To prove your identification, all travelers 19 and older must also have government-issued photo ID such as a driver's license.

However, for U.S. citizens 18 and under, only proof of citizenship — such as a birth certificate — is required. No photo ID is required. (The same rule applies to Canadian citizens 18 and under; they only need a birth certificate.)

If you're a legal resident of the U.S. but not a citizen, you'll need the documents that prove your residency status plus your citizenship papers.

Q. Does it have to be the original, certified birth certificate?

A. No, a copy is OK, according to Mike Milne, a spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Service.

Q. What if I don't have a passport and can't find my birth certificate?

A. Get a birth certificate from the vital statistics office in the area in which you were born. For those born in Seattle and elsewhere in King County, they're issued by the King County Vital Statistics Office,

Q. Do I really need ID for a baby?

A. Yes. Every person who is crossing the border must have ID.

Some other child-travel things to know:

If minor children are traveling to Canada with a relative or family friend, they must have their ID plus a signed letter from parents giving travel permission. If parents are divorced and only one of them is traveling across the border with a child, a permission letter/documentation also may be needed. Get details through the Canada Border Services Agency,

Q. What if I'm over 18 and don't have a driver's license for ID?

Take along your college ID or any official photo ID that you have. Consider getting a Washington State identity card which, like a driver's license, is issued through the state's Department of Licensing,'ll also be able to get what's called an "enhanced" version of a Washington identity card, starting later in January, that is a federally approved alternative to a passport at land and sea crossings with Canada, Mexico and the other Western Hemisphere initiative countries (it's not valid for air travel which requires a passport).

If you're over 18 and don't have photo ID, be prepared for what's called secondary screening at the border — more detailed questioning. If you're traveling by car, you could be asked to go inside the border office and talk to another inspector. Foreign nationals (including Canadians) trying to enter the U.S. without the required ID could be turned back.

Q. What about the "enhanced driver license"?

A. Washington state will start issuing these special licenses later this month, the first in the nation to do so. It is a voluntary program and provides border-crossing ID that is cheaper than a passport but is approved by federal authorities as a substitute for a passport.

Like the enhanced ID card, the enhanced driver license will contain embedded and encoded information on your citizenship and ID that can be machine-read at border crossings. It serves as an alternative for land and sea border crossings (but not for air travel). Starting Jan. 22 appointments will be taken for issuing the new license. You'll need lots of ID and a personal interview to get it; you can phone to set up an appointment starting Jan. 22: The nice thing about the enhanced license is that it does double duty, both as a driver's license and as a document for crossing the land/sea borders.

Q. Should I get a passport instead of an enhanced driver license?

A. If you are sure you won't need or want to take a flight out of the U.S., you could stick with the enhanced driver license. It costs just $15 more than a regular license, and its cheaper and quicker to get than a passport.

If there's any chance you'll need to fly beyond the U.S. (including to Canada and Mexico), get a passport. Get passport info at Also, a passport is accepted worldwide as proof of both citizenship and identity: It's a useful document to have, even if you don't have immediate travel plans. If you're thinking of getting a passport, apply this month before the spring/summer travel rush begins.

For border crossings between the U.S. and Canada and Mexico, other approved alternative ID includes the Nexus and Sentri passes for prescreened travelers. See

Q. What about a Passport Card?

The U.S. will start issuing a Passport Card this spring, the State Department said on Thursday. It will be cheaper and smaller than a passport, and valid for land/sea travel in the Western Hemisphere intiative countries (not flights). See Should you get one? It could be useful once passports are required next year — since it's accepted border-crossing ID — and could be particularly useful for children and those without drivers' licenses. It's aimed at people living in border communities who don't need or want to pay for a full passport. But Washingtonians can get an enhanced driver license or an enhanced state ID card — the first state to offer such options — making a Passport Card less useful here.

Q. What about ID theft with the special cards?

A. There's an ongoing debate, with some privacy advocates concerned about the vulnerability of the radio tags that contain the information. And you certainly want to safeguard an enhanced ID card or enhanced driver license.

Eventually the Department of Homeland Security intends to require all driver licenses issued in the United States to contain similar identification. The final regulations were released Friday: You can read about what's called "Real ID" — its features and requirements — at the Department of Homeland Security Web site,

Q. Will requiring more ID make longer lines at borders?

A. No, U.S. Customs and Border Services spokesman Mike Milne. Inspectors already ask questions and ask for ID of drivers and passengers at the Peace Arch at Blaine and other crossings.

In theory, having standardized documents should make it border-processing faster. In practice, time will tell.

Kristin Jackson:

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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