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Always Travel With a Passport on Your Cruise — Even If You Don’t Need One

Contingencies, say the cruise lines—and they’re right.

International travel documentation can be a confusing, contentious issue—particularly on cruises. Individual governments determine the requirements for non-citizens to cross their borders, but cruise lines can have their own, stricter requirements, and travelers should be aware of the requirements for their cruise line when booking.

As a general rule, Americans embarking on a cruise should have a passport, with at least six months validity left. However, certain itineraries departing from U.S. ports don’t require that passengers even have a passport. On “closed loop” itineraries, where the ship departs from and returns to the same U.S. port on voyages to Canada, Alaska (where roundtrip voyages must stop at a foreign port before returning to their embarkation point), Mexico, or the Caribbean it’s possible to embark and travel on many cruise lines with a passport card, a U.S. or Canadian Enhanced Driver’s License or Identification Card, or an Enhanced Tribal ID.

While it’s possible, cruise lines that do accept those alternate forms of identification (including Holland America Line, Princess, Carnival, NCL, and others) also actively encourage passengers to travel with a passport booklet instead.

But why?

Contingencies, say the cruise lines—and they’re right. While closed-loop cruises typically go off without a hitch, there are times when passengers need to disembark early. If there’s a medical emergency and they need to disembark at a port, a family emergency and they need to disembark and fly home, or they simply miss the boat, their options will be more limited if they find themselves in a foreign port without a passport booklet.

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This is also the reason why most cruise lines require a minimum of six months validity on a passport when passengers have one—it’s a minimum buffer that allows for most contingencies, including an extended stay abroad due to illness or medical treatment.

While U.S. regulators allow certain travelers to cross land borders (including cruise terminals) without a full passport booklet, they are required for all passengers entering the United States by air (even if they’re being evacuated for medical reasons), and airlines cannot accept passengers for travel without them.

It’s also worth noting that documentation requirements for international travel are fluid. While U.S. regulators allow surface travel without passports for now, that situation could change with the geopolitical situation and the outcomes of ongoing risk assessments. Should the security situation change in the U.S. because of terrorist events or deteriorating diplomatic relations, documentation requirements could change with little notice.

Cruises are something of a self-contained bubble, and it makes sense that some documentation requirements are often relaxed—in most countries in North America, passengers arriving from foreign ports walk off the ship without any entry formalities at all. This is because cruise passengers arriving at ports of call are virtually uniform in travel duration and travel purpose. They’re unlikely to be importing contraband, goods for sale, or to perform any work during their brief stay in port, and that makes it easy for customs inspectors—who have already had access to the ship’s passenger list since it left port.

That said, traveling to any foreign country—even on a cruise ship—without a passport isn’t the best idea. It contradicts one of the enduring maxims of international travel: that as a noncitizen on a temporary stay, it’s always best for travelers to have documentation that proves their citizenship and their immigration status in the country they’re visiting.

Typically, that’s a passport stamp or electronic record of entry; for cruise passengers, it’s their onboard keycard or medallion that identifies them as a passenger of their ship. In these cases, the ship itself acts as a virtual passport, and it’s a decent one under normal circumstances—just not when situations turn irregular.

Passengers traveling without passports who do find themselves staying outside the country unexpectedly longer than anticipated should immediately contact the nearest U.S. consular office for assistance. It’s worth noting that U.S. consular offices are generally able to provide emergency passports to travelers whose existing passports have been lost or stolen, but for travelers who have never had a passport it’s more complicated.

It’s also worth mentioning that U.S. consular offices are not available in every cruise port. In Mexico, for example, there are U.S. consular offices in many popular cruise ports like Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta, and Mazatlan, but many other ports, such as Ensenada, La Paz, Loreto, Manzanillo, and Ixtapa do not have U.S. consular offices available. In the Caribbean, it can be even more complicated. Cruise passengers visiting Turks & Caicos, for example, would be directed to the U.S. consular office in Nassau, Bahamas, 400 miles away.

So before setting off on a cruise—even a cruise that doesn’t technically require a passport with six months validity left on it, it’s still a best practice to have for any contingency—and some cruise lines already make that choice for you.