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Originally published Monday, June 1, 2009 at 1:02 PM

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How to get the right ID for Canada trip

New ID law takes effect for land/sea border crossings between the U.S. and Canada; here's how to get the right documents for a trip.

Seattle Times Travel staff

ID, border information


See the federal Web site for information on the new ID requirements.

Border delays

To find out about vehicle delays at U.S.-Canada vehicle border crossings, including the Peace Arch at Blaine, check the Web site of the Washington Department of Transportation, It has real-time border waits both northbound and southbound, a Webcam and maps.

Choosing a border crossing

Two overhead highway signs on Interstate 5, one south of Bellingham and one north, give drivers estimated wait times at border crossings for those heading into Canada. Drivers then can choose the one with the shortest wait time — the Peace Arch crossing in Blaine; the Pacific Highway crossing, a few minutes drive east of the Peace Arch (it's nicknamed the "truck crossing" but is open to all vehicles); or farther east at the border station at Lynden., Whatcom County.

Kristin Jackson / Seattle Times


If you're traveling to Canada by land or sea, here's the rundown on the ID you need to cross the border.

A new U.S. law took effect Monday that requires American and Canadian citizens entering or returning to the United States by land or sea to have standardized documents. A passport already is required for all international air travel to and from the United States.

The new law means Americans driving to Vancouver, B.C., or taking a ferry to Victoria must have one of the designated documents: a passport, passport card, Washington State enhanced driver's license or a "trusted traveler" document such as the Nexus card.

There are exemptions for children under 16: they need just a birth certificate (an original or copy). Youths 16 through 18 traveling in organized groups — such as school or sports teams and religious groups — also only need birth certificates. There also are some exceptions for military personnel on active-duty assignments. And the ID requirements for foreigners who are legally resident in the U.S. do not change under this new law.

Here's a rundown on the required documents required as of June 1 for land/sea travel between the U.S. and Canada.

(There remains some confusion over cruises. For "closed-loop" sailings such as Seattle-Alaska cruises that depart and return to the same U.S. port, U.S. officials say that a passport or one of the new alternative documents isn't required — that a birth certificate and driver's license are sufficient. However, some cruise lines strongly urge passports. Always check with the cruise line.)

U.S. passport

This is the "gold standard" of identification documents issued to U.S. citizens.

Pros: Accepted for air, land and sea travel worldwide.

Cons: Most expensive. A U.S. passport is $100 for an adult (valid for 10 years); $85 for children under 16 (valid for five years).

Getting one: Passports are issued by the U.S. State Department. Go to for information or phone 877-487-2778. Current processing time is about four to six weeks, according to Trip Atkins, assistant regional director of the Seattle Passport Agency, but could be faster. For urgent travel or emergencies, U.S. passports can be obtained quickly through an in-person appointment system in Seattle.

Good to know: About 13 million passports are expected to be issued nationwide this fiscal year, said Atkins, down from 16.2 million last fiscal year, mainly because of the recession. Despite the June 1 documentation requirements, long delays in issuing passports aren't expected since applications have been steady and staff increased. About a third of Washington state residents have a passport (or passport card), said Atkins.

U.S. passport card

This is a cheaper, limited-use document for U.S. citizens that can be used for some land/sea travel.

Pros: Smaller than a passport — it's a laminated card resembling a driver's license — and cheaper. A U.S. passport card costs $45 for an adult (valid for 10 years) and $35 for a child under 16 (valid for five years).

Cons: Can't be used for international air travel, only for land/sea entry to the U.S. from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda — countries that are part the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.

Getting one: Like a passport, it's issued by the U.S. State Department: or 877-487-2778.

Good to know: The passport card costs $20 if requested when getting a first-time or renewed passport.

Enhanced driver's license

Washington is one of four border states approved to issue an enhanced driver's license, which denotes both a person's identity and U.S. citizenship. It serves both as a driver's license and ID for crossing land/sea borders between the U.S. and Canada (and Mexico).

The enhanced license looks like a normal license, except it has a radio chip embedded in it which is scanned at the border to yield information about the bearer. To get an enhanced license, applicants must show proof of their U.S. citizenship, identity and Washington state residency and apply for it in person at selected state licensing offices. (Michigan, Vermont and New York also issue enhanced licenses, as do some Canadian provinces.)

Pros: Since drivers must carry a license, it makes it unnecessary to carry a second piece of ID for a drive or ferry trip to British Columbia. It costs only $15 more than a standard license, and can be obtained as a first license or when renewing.

Cons: Can't be used for air travel and, like the passport card, is valid only for land/sea border crossings to a limited number of countries. It may not be accepted for entry into Caribbean countries; travelers should check the ID requirements for those nations in advance.

Getting one: Enhanced licenses are issued by the Washington Department of Licensing, 866-520-4365 or There's both walk-in and appointments to get one — but be ready for a wait.

Good to know: A similar enhanced state ID card is available for non-drivers through the state Department of Licensing. Applicants must show proof of identity, Washington state residence and U.S. citizenship.

Nexus card

This "trusted traveler" card is issued to travelers who have been extensively prescreened. It's valid for U.S.-Canada land travel (there's a separate card for U.S.-Mexico travel) and also can be used for faster screening at some airports and by boaters at marine ports.

Pros: Drivers can use fast-clearance, Nexus-only lanes at some border crossings, including at the Peace Arch in Blaine. The Nexus pass, a radio-frequency identification card that looks like a driver's license, is scanned at the dedicated lane. This lets drivers avoid the sometimes-long waits at border crossings.

Cons: Applicants must fill out detailed forms, be interviewed in person and fingerprinted. Getting the card can take weeks or months. It's only valid for travel between the U.S. and Canada.

Getting one: The Nexus card is issued by U.S. Customs and Border Protection,

866-639-8726 or It costs $50 and is valid for five years.

Good to know: To use the dedicated Nexus lanes at border crossings, everyone in the car must have a Nexus card. If not, standard border lanes must be used.

Kristin Jackson:

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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