Some travel-industry officials say they fear a passport bottleneck when new federal regulations take effect Tuesday requiring Americans to show a passport to re-enter the United States after traveling to countries in the Western Hemisphere.
But officials at the State and Homeland Security departments, which are implementing the changes, say most travelers who need passports to comply with the new rules already have them.
The first phase of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) will require U.S. citizens traveling by air between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda to present a valid passport. In the past, many of these destinations required only a valid U.S. driver’s license or other official identification.
The changes in travel requirements do not affect trips to and from U.S.-controlled territories in the Caribbean, such as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
The new rules were recommended by the September 11 commission and were passed into law as part of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. The rules are aimed at reducing the threat of terrorism and creating a uniform system to identify travelers.
Currently, a traveler “may make a verbal declaration of citizenship” or “produce 8,000 different documents” to try to show who they are as they try to cross the border, making authentication of identity both difficult and time-consuming, said Derwood Staeben, a senior adviser for the State Department’s Consular Affairs Bureau, which oversees passports. “In fiscal 2005, our Customs Bureau intercepted 75,000 fraudulent documents.”
A recent poll by Kayak.com, which provides travel information to about 2 million people a month, showed that “only a small percentage of those planning to get a passport” to comply with the new regulations “have even sent in their applications,” said Steve Hafner, co-founder and chief executive officer of the firm, which has offices in New Jersey and Massachusetts.
“We think it could create a major backlog when the U.S. State Department starts processing all those applications, once they are in the system,” Mr. Hafner said, noting that it already takes six weeks for applicants to obtain a passport.
In contrast, data from the Homeland Security Department show that 86 percent of Americans who have flown to the United States since Nov. 20 had passports, leading Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to say Thursday that he expects a “relatively seamless transition.”
Overall, about 73 million Americans — or 27 percent to 28 percent of the U.S. population — have passports, Mr. Staeben said.
But Ileana Kerasidis, manager of Skyline Travel in Alexandria, said her clients are expressing “tremendous concern” about potential passport backlogs.
‘Start very early’
Steve Dahlgren, manager of Ticket to Ride, a travel agency in the District, said he is “recommending that people start very early” in the passport-application process.
“For example, if someone is planning a trip in July and would usually wait until May to apply for a passport, we are advising them to apply now,” Mr. Dahlgren said. “There is not much confidence the process will be smooth. I am not concerned that the State Department will be completely overwhelmed, but I think it’s best to start early and be safe.”
The State Department says it has “dedicated sufficient resources” to handle the nearly 4 million additional applications for passports it expects to receive this year as a result of the new requirements. It says it has hired 250 new employees to review passport applications.
“We’ve been preparing for this, and so we’re not expecting a backlog,” Mr. Staeben said. “We don’t have a backlog now, even though applications are up 51 percent over last year. We process passports in a six-week period, and we expect that to continue.”
However, Mr. Dahlgren said he’s heard from some clients who already have waited at least eight weeks to get passports. “There is a backlog,” he said.
The second phase of the WHTI, expected to begin as early as Jan. 1, 2008, will require citizens traveling back to the United States by land or sea — including ferries — to show passports.
About 86 million people fly to the United States each year. But about four times that number arrive in cars. As a result, many officials are expecting passport applications to rise dramatically next year. The State Department says it expects 18 million applications in 2008, up from 12.1 million last year and an anticipated 16 million this year.
A price to pay
Because the new passport requirements can add sharply to the cost of a trip — especially for families — there seems to be increased client interest in travel to places that will remain passport-free, said Drew Patterson, a vice president at Kayak.com.
In most cases, a passport costs $97, which includes a $30 execution fee. For children younger than 16, the cost is $82. Mr. Staeben said those prices will not rise under the new policy.
But a couple with three children who need passports to travel somewhere that passports formerly weren’t necessary will pay another $440.
And if they need a passport in a hurry, they will have to pay $60 more per person — or a total of $300 for a family of five — for the faster service. Mr. Staeben said paying the “expedite fee” typically means applicants will receive passports in two weeks rather than six.
Some hotel chains and tourism offices in parts of the Caribbean affected by the new rules, including Nassau and Paradise Island in the Bahamas, are offering promotions that reimburse travelers who suddenly need to get passports.
As for what will happen to U.S. citizens who attempt to re-enter the country without a passport, the government says the law allows the new documentation requirements to be waived under certain circumstances.
“These exceptions include individual cases of unforeseen emergency and individual cases based on ‘humanitarian or national-interest reasons,’ ” the State Department says in a fact sheet.
Mr. Chertoff said so-called “snowbirds” — Canadians spending the winter in the United States — are also exempt from the new passport requirements. “We will allow them to depart from the United States without having a passport for some significant period of time to avoid the problem of people who may have come here last year” before the requirement took effect, he told reporters last week.
There also will be exceptions for those with special cards issued for those who travel between the United States and Canada for work, merchant marines with Coast Guard documents and permanent residents with green cards.
In addition, the State Department says it “has processes to assist U.S. citizens overseas to obtain emergency travel documentation for those with lost or stolen passports.”
Originally, the proposed date for implementation of the air phase of WHTI was Jan. 1, rather than Jan. 23. But it was postponed at the request of the airline industry “in order to facilitate holiday travel,” the government said.
Later this year, the State Department will begin providing credit-card-size Passport Cards or PASS Cards, which can be used as ID for land and sea travel between the United States and Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda.
Passport applicants must appear in person at a passport acceptance center, found in post offices, federal courthouses, county clerk offices and even libraries in some communities. Full information about the application process can be obtained at the State Department’s Web site (https://travel.state.gov/passport/passport_1738.html).
Travel editor Richard Slusser and researchers Amy Baskerville and Clark Eberly contributed to this article.