What travel does a passport cover, anyway?
Following 9/11, the requirements for crossing the U.S. border got more stringent. A few years earlier, all you needed was a driver's license or other government-issued photo ID and an oral affirmation that you were a U.S. citizen. Since then, the stringent ID requirements of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative mandate that you show a passport or other selected proof of U.S. citizenship before you enter.
Crossing the border without a passport
If you try to cross the border with just a regular driver's license, plan on a long delay – border officials won't let you into the country until they receive satisfactory evidence of your U.S. citizenship. Showing your birth certificate won't work, either. Only children 16 years or younger can cross a U.S. border using a birth certificate. The age rises to 19 for a school or youth organization trip.
Passport booklet vs. card
Rather than having to lug a cumbersome passport book along with you as you travel into Mexico or Canada, bring a passport card instead. The passport card is more than just easier to carry – it's cheaper, too. A first-time applicant pays $110 for a passport book, but the passport card costs just $30. Opt for both for $140. Keep in mind that you'll pay an additional $25 execution fee to get your documents.
If you're not planning on flying overseas, the passport card is the way to go. The card is your ticket across the border with Canada and Mexico by land or sea. It's also all you need to sail away to Bermuda and the Caribbean. If, however, you prefer to fly to any of these destinations, a passport booklet is mandatory.
Other valid documents
Trusted Traveler Program cards give low-risk travelers expedited passage across the borders through kiosks and dedicated lanes. The NEXUS card for Canada and SENTRI for Mexico require that you go through a rigorous background check, an in-person interview and pay a fee to receive your expedited card. Unlike passport cards and enhanced driver's licenses, you can use the NEXUS and SENTRI cards for air travel to the two countries.
Enhanced driver's licenses are another way to enter Canada and Mexico without having to present your passport. Normal driver's licenses provide proof of identification. An enhanced driver's license provides proof of citizenship, also. As of 2017, only Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Vermont and Washington offer enhanced driver's licenses.
South of the border
Although your passport card is adequate to go to a border town, if you plan on traveling more than 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) into the country, you'll need more documentation. Stop at an immigration checkpoint to get Forma Migratoria Multiple, an entry permit. This document allows you to travel for up to 180 days on the contingency that you don't work.
Kids in Canada
Before you head north for a family trip, familiarize yourself with Canada's rules for coming into the country with minors. Bring a copy of the child's birth certificate, adoption papers or custody documents besides his passport. The papers are used to establish your relationship to the child.
If your child's other parent isn't along for the journey, there's another piece of paper you must bring. If you share custody with the other parent, you must have a notarized letter approving your trip out of the country with the child for specified dates of travel. You'll also need an approval letter if your ex has primary custody.
Should you send your child to visit friends or family unaccompanied, you must send a letter signed by both parents stating your contact information and info for the adult who will look after your child in Canada.