Managing Passports for Family Travel

Our family of passports.

Our family of passports.

One of the casualties of this week’s budget sequestration was National Passport Day, an annual event sponsored by the U.S. Department of State to get would-be travelers to apply for or renew passports. I still managed to chat with Brenda Sprague, deputy assistant secretary for passport services, about the importance of planning ahead when you travel abroad with kids.

Sprague is the real deal—essentially she oversees all passport offices and agencies in the U.S. Put differently, whoever stamped your last passport from the government almost certainly calls Sprague his or her boss.

The two of us spent nearly an hour on the phone. In that time, she covered a variety of subjects related to family travel. I’ve boiled them down into four basic tips.

Tip 1: Be proactive about getting your kids documented and/or renewed
In almost all cases, U.S. citizens—including newborns—need passports to travel internationally. Sprague noted that it takes about 4-6 weeks to get a regular passport and 2-3 weeks to get an expedited one (which costs an extra $60). She noted that at least 10 percent of all passport applications get kicked back because they’re got something missing—a signature here, a certified birth certificate there, etc. This means that for parents traveling abroad with children who don’t have a passport, it pays to get the ball rolling as early as possible. For those families with kids who already have passports, it’s important to note renewal rules; though adult passports are valid for 10 years, child passports are only valid for five. “Some foreign countries won’t let you enter unless you’ve got six months of validity left on your passport,” notes Sprague. “Simply checking the expiration date on a child’s passport can save families stress, time and money.”

Tip 2: Make sure you even need a passport in the first place
Our neighboring countries do not require U.S. travelers visiting by land to show passports at border crossings. This means families driving (or busing or walking) across our borders with Mexico and Canada don’t need to worry about bringing passports for the kids. Sprague notes that families traveling by air to these countries DO need passports. She adds that the U.S. Passport Card is a viable alternative for traditional passports at land crossings, and that it enables travelers visiting Bermuda and the Caribbean to leave their passports at home, as well. (It’s cheaper than a Passport Book, too; for minors, new cards are only $40.)

Tip 3: Don’t forget about visas
Depending on where you and the family are traveling, you might need a visa to enter your destination country. Latin American countries, for instance, are notorious sticklers for travel visas; Western European nations, by contrast, are not. Because foreign embassies need (you to send in) your passport to award visas, the process of obtaining these likely will add time to your pre-trip preparations. “It’s not like you can handle a lot of this stuff in a day or two,” says Sprague. “You’d be amazed at how many people think they can.”

Tip 4: Get that baby to sit still!
There’s one rule about passports for infants: We parents can’t be in the picture. Sprague says this means parents need to figure out a way to photograph babies a) against a white background and b) while the infants are sitting up straight. Not an easy task, to say the least. “There’s a lot of hit or miss on this,” she says, adding that her agency has rejected photos that do not meet the specifications. “It’s a challenge every parent needs to figure out on his or her own, but don’t be afraid to ask passport service employees for suggestions or help.” (As an aside here, we managed to get through two infant passport photos with a white sheet and a white floating pool noodle.)

Lastly, Sprague mentioned a relatively new program from the State Department that keeps travelers informed of State Department-related news while they’re abroad. The opt-in service, dubbed the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, notifies subscribers in the event of a predicted weather disaster, or if a nation’s political situation is about to destabilize. The service is available as an app or via SMS. If you’re traveling as a family, check it out—when you go abroad you’re your kids, there’s no such thing as being too cautious.

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