The most important part of any cruise is actually being able to sail on it. Let's have a look at the requirements that the US has for citizens traveling onboard a cruise ship, as there is a lot of confusing information out there. While the short answer is, no, you don't need a passport to take most cruises out out of a US port, there are exceptions as well as some really important reasons to have a passport even if you don't otherwise need it, and even some things to keep in mind if you already have a passport.
US Passport Requirements - The Facts
The United States allows US citizens to take 'closed loop' cruises from the US. A closed loop cruise is one that begins in a US port, and ends in the same US port. This means if you're sailing on a cruise out of Port Everglades (Ft Lauderdale), visiting Nassau and Cozumel, and getting off again in Port Everglades, you don't need a passport. You do however need proof of citizenship. One popular exception as of late? If you're sailing to Cuba you'll need a passport.
What is proof of citizenship? The US Customs and Border protection has this to say:
U.S. Citizens on closed-loop cruises will be able to enter or depart the country on the cruise with proof of citizenship, such as an original or copy of his or her birth certificate (issued by the Vital Records Department in the state where he or she was born) and, if 16 or older, a government issued photo ID.
If the child is a newborn and the actual birth certificate has not arrived from the Vital Records Department, we will accept a Hospital issued birth certificate. The United States does not require you to have a passport. (A Consular report of Birth Abroad issued by the Department of State or a Certificate of Naturalization is also acceptable.)
You'll notice that even the verbiage from USCBP isn't terrifically clear, so let me share some of what has been accepted, and is shared as acceptable by cruise lines. Of course, if you have any doubt, speak with your travel agent or cruise line.
- Birth certificate with a raised seal (generally denoting an official copy, rather than just a copy)
- An Enhanced Drivers License
- A Passport Card
Notice a few things are not on that list. Social security cards, voter's registration cards, and baptismal certificates are not acceptable proof of citizenship.
If you're not a US citizen, you'll need whatever documents you used to enter the US, generally a foreign passport with any required visas. You'll also need to be sure to have the required documentation and visa for all ports of call. Your travel agent or cruise line should be able to help you understand what each country's visa requirements are for non-US citizens. Cruise lines and travel agenets for US based lines generally make it very clear if a visa will be required for US citizens, and this is frequently handled, optionally, with the assistance of the cruise line.
Why You Should Have a Passport
To state it simply, stuff happens. If you need to leave the trip early for any reason, perhaps a family emergency back home, you'll need a passport in order to fly out of whatever country you're in. If you don't have it with you, you will have to get to a US embassy and go through a process that can take several days. Perhaps you don't intend to leave the ship early, but a flat tire, a medical emergency, or just a Corona-induced time-warp lead you to miss the ship. No one wants any of these things to happen, and for most of us it will never be an issue, but not having your passport makes any of these bad situations significantly worse, more time consuming, and more expensive.
Still having some doubts? While it may seem an expense, and kind of a pain to get your passport, the good news is that they're good for ten years, and renewing your passport much easier than getting your first passport, so take the leap and get a passport - you can never be certain of where you might be going tomorrow.
If You Already Have a Passport
Already have your passport? Fantastic, you're ready to cruise! Maybe. Many countries require your passport is valid for at least six months after your entry into the country. As such, some cruise lines extend this requirement for boarding, so it's not a bad idea to make sure your passport isn't expiring anytime soon.
So it's valid for another few years, and you're taking it with you for the cruise, but make sure you're bringing the right passport, and carrying it with you. If you have a passport card, this can be used for going into Canada and Mexico by land, and it is valid as proof of citizenship, but it won't be very helpful if you find yourself stuck in another country because you've missed this ship. Oh, and check out the Mobile Passport Control app if you want to save some time.
Further, there is no point if bringing your passport if you don't have it with you in port. Now there is a lot of debate here, as generally, the cruise line staff empties out your stateroom (and safe) and leaves your belongings with the port authority so that you have your things. This means if you leave your passport in the safe you may still have it if something happens. This isn't guaranteed of course as it's a matter of common cruise line policy rather than law, so many recommend keeping your passport with you when you disembark. If you do, I personally recommend keeping it on your person, perhaps in a neck pouch or large money belt which can be concealed, not in a bag that you could accidentally leave behind. Again, this is an overall touchy part of the subject, but keep in mind why it's important to bring your passport on a cruise
By the way, if you do get stuck, you'll also be glad you had travel insurance, so be sure to look into that as well.
There are lots of reasons to have a passport on a cruise, and depending on where you're cruising, it may be a requirement anyway. To me however, one great reason is that if this is your first cruise, trust me, you're going to want to take another. Perhaps you'll next choose a cruise leaving out of Canada and heading to Alaska, or maybe somewhere in the Mediterranean, maybe you want to - and these would all require passports, so you might as well get one now.
Whatever your decision, the most important part is to have the required documentation for your trip, your family, and your circumstances. No one wants to be left at the terminal, so check with your cruise line or travel agent.
Have questions about when you'll need a passport? Have you cruised with only a birth certificate? Contribute in the comments below!