Having the correct travel documents is critical to go on a cruise. In fact, having the right documents can mean the difference between getting home without incident and being stranded in another country. 

What Documents Are Valid to Cruise?

There are a few documents that can be used to travel on a cruise. Which ones are valid has a great deal to do with where you’re going to and where you’re leaving from. 

Birth Certificate

Assuming you’re traveling on a closed-loop cruise, you can actually cruise with a birth certificate and a photo ID. A closed-loop cruise means that you leave one port and return to the same port. So if you only have a birth certificate and some form of federally accepted photo ID, there’s nothing to prevent you from going on a cruise. 

But there are other forms of documentation that will let you get on a cruise. We’ll look at them then discuss some little known issues that can turn your vacation into a nightmare.

Passport

First up is a passport. It’s the most common form of identification to use when traveling. Passports are good for 10 years from the date of issue. If you don’t have a passport, you should get one. It makes life phenomenally easier. If you start a new job, you will need a driver’s license and birth certificate or social security card to confirm your identity. If you have a passport, you only need that one document and you’re on your way.

The same is true when cruising. Present your passport and you’re all clear. One word of caution –  don’t wait until the last minute to get your passport if you don’t have one. It takes anywhere from 6 to 8 weeks for a passport to be issued. The safest thing to do is to get one even if you have no intention of traveling anytime soon. That way, when you are ready to travel, there won’t be any stress.

Passport Card

When you apply for your passport, you will be offered the option to obtain a passport card to be issued with the passport book. It’s a good idea to get one. Because it is still “technically” a passport, you can use it for identification. 

But there is a catch.

The only places where the passport card is accepted are countries participating in the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. Participating countries include:

  • United States
  • Canada
  • Mexico
  • Caribbean countries

Not only that, the only means of travel that is valid with this form of identification is travel by land or by sea. Therefore, if you only bring a passport card as identification for a cruise, you’ll have no problem getting onto the ship. You’ll also be able to get off at ports in the Caribbean and Mexico just as if you had a passport. There is a gotcha that we’ll talk about later. But the passport card makes carrying your ID a lot easier.

Enhanced Driver’s License

This one might be new to you. Depending on your state, an enhanced driver’s license looks exactly the same as a regular license. For example, in the state of North Carolina, the only way to tell the difference between an EDL and a regular license is a yellow star in the bottom corner. 

In order to obtain an EDL, you’ll have to present a birth certificate or a passport. One word of caution. If you already have an EDL and you need a replacement because you moved to a new address or some other reason, make sure you are issued an EDL. The safest way to ensure your new license retains its EDL branding is to go to the DMV with your passport. Don’t renew it online like I did. There’s a strong chance what you get won’t be an EDL.

One big advantage of an EDL is that it is a driver’s license. So your EDL gives you permission to drive in any of those countries with just your license.

Little Things Can Cause Big Problems

After reading this you might think that if you have any of these documents you can go on your cruise and return home refreshed. And for the most part, that is true. But some small things can create very, very big problems.

Problems With a Birth Certificate

For example, what if you live in the United States and are going on an Alaska cruise, which is also in the United States. I said in the birth certificate section that you can cruise in a closed-loop using just a birth certificate.

So if your cruise leaves Anchorage and returns to Anchorage, no problem with a birth certificate and photo ID, right?

Wrong.

If you booked a cruise leaving from Alaska and you live in the United States, you more likely than not will have to fly. So far, so good. As long as you have a non-stop flight you can travel from anywhere in the United States to Alaska. The only problem is that you will probably have a layover in Canada.

Canada is a foreign country that sits between two parts of the United States. As such, your birth certificate and photo ID won’t let you get on the plane. You could literally be stuck in Canada and miss your cruise on top of it all. 

That small detail of having a layover in a country as friendly with the United States can create a horror story if you only cruise with a birth certificate.

Just to highlight how bad things can get, I heard of an experience where a mother and young daughter were doing just what I described. U.S. citizens going on an Alaska cruise with a layover in Canada. The mother had a passport; the daughter a birth certificate. The authorities were willing to let the mom continue onto the ship. But the daughter would have to stay.

Talk about a tough spot.

Even With a Passport, You Might Get Stuck

After seeing the drama that can happen by traveling only with a birth certificate, you’d be right to think that using a passport is the right way to go. 

So you might be surprised to find out that even with a passport, you still could be denied entry into a country. 

Get your passport and examine how it looks. Is it dog-eared? Are the pages warped? Did one of the kids get a hold of it and turn it into a coloring book? If any of these describes your passport, not only could you be denied entry into a country, you might not be allowed onto the ship.

When Does Your Passport Expire?

Look at the date of expiration on your passport. Does it expire in the next six months? If it does, you won’t be allowed into these countries (this list is by no means exhaustive):

  • Cambodia
  • China
  • Cyprus
  • Egypt
  • Greece
  • Hati
  • Israel
  • Italy
  • Malaysia
  • Norway
  • Portugal
  • Sri Lanka
  • Turkey
  • Vietnam

Imagine landing in one of these countries and being told by customs that you cannot leave the airport. If you are flying to one of these countries for a cruise, you paid a lot of money for your stateroom and your flight. And now you’re stuck.

Make sure your passport is not expiring in the next 6 months. If it is, whether you’re going on a cruise or leaving the country or not, renew it now.

How Many Pages Do You Have?

Yet another issue that could have you in a lot of trouble is how many free pages you have left in your passport book. So even if your passport is in pristine condition, it’s not going to expire in the next six months, and your kids haven’t drawn devil horns on your passport picture, if you don’t have enough pages in your book, you could be denied entry.

The good news is that most countries only require at least 1 page free on your passport. Some, like Italy and Singapore, require 2 free pages. Unless you’re a world traveler, it’s unlikely that you will fill all your pages in 10 years. But if your book is starting to fill up, play it safe and renew your passport.

What Cruises Can You Take Without a Passport?

If you don’t have enough time to get a passport and you only have a birth certificate and photo ID, you can still cruise. 

Remember, as long as it’s a closed-loop cruise, you won’t have any problems with customs. You can leave from any port in the United States and Puerto Rico. As long as you come back to the port of origin, you’re good.

I still wouldn’t recommend you do this if it’s at all avoidable. In the unfortunate event you get hurt while on your cruise and are hospitalized, you’ll have to get back home on your own. Remember, only passports are valid forms of identification for air travel between countries. 

Earlier, I said a passport card is “technically” a passport. Just like the EDL, however, a passport card will only work with countries in the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. And it doesn’t apply to air travel. So not even a passport card will help you.

In case you come back late to your ship from an excursion, the ship may not be there. You will have to make travel arrangements to meet up with the ship at the next port of call. If you need to fly, you’ll be in trouble without a passport book.

After considering everything, the bottom line is: make sure you get your passport. It’s your key to traveling anywhere in the world on any type of transportation.

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