US Passport Cards Q&A

by Joseph McKeown

Summertime is fast approaching and soon it will be time for, that’s right, vacation! Although many Americans will travel domestically this summer, some will set off for international destinations abroad or even to our northern neighbors in Canada or—despite the heat—head south to Mexico. For those traveling outside the US, it’s an excellent time now to check if your passport needs renewed, or to apply for your first one. Those applying for passports will see that there are actually two “passports” you can apply for: a US passport book and a US passport card. Wait, what’s a passport card? you may wonder. And what’s the difference between the two? And which one do I need? I have so many questions! It’s okay, let’s discuss.

What is the US passport card?

The US passport card is a national identity card issued only to US citizens. If issued for the full validity, the passport card, like the passport book, is proof of the holder’s US citizenship and identity.  The credit card-sized passport card is adjudicated to the exact same standards as a passport book.

So what’s the difference between a passport card and passport book?

While both provide proof of the holder’s US citizenship and identity, the passport card has limited use as a travel document. Whereas a US passport book can be used for international travel by air, sea, or land, the passport card may be used only to enter at land border crossings or sea ports-of-entry from Mexico, Canada, Bermuda, and the Caribbean. While the passport card may not be used for international air travel, it is Real ID compliant and can be used for domestic air travel.    

How long is the passport card valid for?

The passport card is valid for the same period of time as a passport book: ten years for an adult, five for children fifteen and younger.

If the passport card cannot be used for international travel, why is it called a passport?

Historically, citizens of Canada and the US could easily cross at land borders showing any one of a number of different documents to show identity and citizenship. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Congress began drafting legislation that included the creation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI). This initiative was designed to strengthen border security, but it eliminated many of the types of documents previously used by US citizens and others to cross the land borders and sea ports-of-entry. For many communities living along the northern and southern borders, these changes were an enormous inconvenience. Many had no need or interest in a US passport—which is also more expensive—and wanted something that could easily replace the documents (such as a driver’s license) that they would usually use to cross. The passport card, which as mentioned is credit card-sized and can easily fit in a wallet, was the solution.

What else should I know about the passport card?

The passport card has a radio frequency identification chip (RFIC) which emits a unique identification number that is used to access records. This is handy since the passport card can be used at special “Ready Lanes” established by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at land border crossings. These “Ready Lanes” are express lanes for those with the passport card and other documents with the RFIC, including an Enhanced Driver's License (EDL); the Enhanced Tribal Card (ETC); Trusted Traveler Cards (NEXUS, SENTRI, and FAST cards); the new Enhanced Permanent Resident Card (PRC); or new Border Crossing Card (BCC). Because the chip emits the special identification number border agents are able to access the traveler’s information before they reach the inspection booth, allowing for a faster inspection and admission process.

Why can’t I use the passport card to fly internationally?

The passport card was designed specifically for the northern and southern US border communities where residents cross the border frequently by land. International travelers by air are only permitted to use the US passport book.   

Can I apply for a passport book and passport card using same application?

Yes, individuals can apply for both a passport book and passport card at the same time using either Form DS-11 for those applying in person or Form DS-82 for those applying my mail.  Applicants will need to include fees for both the passport book and passport card when applying for both.

Can I apply for the passport card only?

Yes. The fee for applying for a passport card only is significantly less than applying for a passport book. Depending on travel needs, the passport card may be sufficient.

Wherever you go this summer, it’s always a good idea to double-check what documentation you may need to travel, including visa stamps. Oh yes, one more thing: bon voyage!