All about the documents you need for traveling north
The Vancouver skyline is spectacular, and wandering the picturesque streets of Montreal may prompt you to start learning French. However, you can't see either city, or anything else that Canada has to offer, unless you have the appropriate ID needed to cross the border. A birth certificate is acceptable only in some circumstances. Even if your situation doesn't absolutely necessitate bringing a passport, you should still bring yours if you can. Further, if your travel plans change and you need to fly back into the U.S., carrying a valid passport is a must.
Q: Can I fly into or out of Canada with just a birth certificate?
A: No. U.S. Customs and Border Protection requires Americans flying into or out of the U.S. to present a passport, NEXUS card, Merchant Mariner Document or Military Identification Card. Travelers of all ages are subject to the same rules. So if you're flying into Canada or flying back home to the U.S. after a visit to Canada, every member of your party must have a valid passport or one of the other accepted documents.
Q: What documents do I need to cross the Canadian border by land?
A: The Canada Border Services Agency is in charge of determining whether visitors are allowed to cross into Canada. This agency requires visitors to provide proof of citizenship, which a birth certificate satisfies.
However, you should still bring a valid passport, because you'll need it to cross back into the United States. U.S. Customs and Border Protection doesn't consider a birth certificate to be acceptable ID for travelers over the age of 16 (or 19, in certain circumstances). You can also use the other documents that are acceptable for flying into Canada, like a NEXUS card.
ID requirements vary for U.S. residents who aren't citizens. If you're a permanent resident, carry your U.S. Permanent Resident Card along with your other travel documents. If you're not a citizen, contact the State Department to check the current ID requirements before leaving the country.
Q: What about by sea?
A: It depends. Bringing a passport is still your best bet because it's an acceptable form of ID for all transportation authorities. But if you're taking a cruise to Canada, you may be able to get by with just your birth certificate.
If your cruise departs from one U.S. port and returns to a different one, or if you plan to disembark in Canada and make your way across the border by land or air, bring your passport. The rules are more flexible on what are called "closed loop cruises," or those that leave from and return to the same U.S. port. If you're cruising to Canada on such a trip, you can present your original birth certificate as proof of citizenship and a government-issued photo ID as proof of identity, in place of presenting a passport. This option is available only to U.S. citizens. Check your cruise line's document requirements, as your carrier may require you to have a passport anyway.
Q: I'm traveling with a minor. Can he use his birth certificate?
A: Maybe. The passport requirement applies to children of all ages when traveling by plane. A minor under 16 who enters Canada by land or sea can use his birth certificate (either the original or a copy) in place of a passport. It's an acceptable form of ID for both entering into Canada and returning to the U.S.
Kids 18 and younger can use a birth certificate to cross the border by land or sea when traveling with a school, religious group or other youth group.