Facing a backlog of millions of passport applications, the US government today agreed to ease partially -- until Sept. 30 -- strict new requirements for citizens flying back into the country from Canada, Mexico, and Caribbean nations from which travel hasn't normally required a passport.
Between now and Sept. 30, US citizens flying back into the country from those nations will need a government-issued identification card, like a driver's license, and proof in the form of a State Department-issued receipt that they have applied for a passport. But until Sept. 30, they won't need to have the actual passport in hand.
Here are some questions and answers about the issue:
Q. If I have tickets to fly from the US to Bermuda, Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean and back between now and Sept. 30, am I off the hook for getting a passport?
A. No. You have to apply for one before you leave the US If you haven't received your passport by the time you leave, you can still fly. But to get back into this country, you will need to have a receipt from the State Department proving that you have applied. You can get it at http://travel.state.gov/passport/get/status/status_2567.html.
You will also need when you arrive back in the US to have a government-issued identification, and you can expect to face additional Customs and Homeland Security scrutiny, such as a longer bag check or interview by a customs agent. People who fail to get a receipt proving they've sought a passport "should not expect to be accommodated,'' the State Department warned.
Q. What about other countries?
A. Nothing has changed. US citizens need passports to travel to and from all other foreign countries.
Q. What about children under 16?
A. They also have to be carrying proof they applied for a passport.
Q. Where can you get a passport?
A. Almost all US Post Offices have applications, and you can apply in person in Boston at the office at 10 Causeway Street next to North Station. You need a previously issued passport or birth certificate or other proof of identity and a special two-inch-square photo. It costs $97 for a new passport for people over 16, $82 for kids 15 and younger, and $67 for all ages to renew a passport. By paying an extra $60 you can get your passport within 14 days, the State Department promises.
Q. How bad are regular wait times for passports now?
A. Since the new requirement for air travelers returning from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean took effect Jan. 23, average wait times to get a passport have soared from 3 weeks to between 10 and 12 weeks on average. The State Department won't say how big the backlog of applications is but confirms it's in the millions and it hopes to get the backlog worked down between now and Sept. 30. The State Department expects to issue 18 million passports this year, one-third more than 2006, largely because of the new Canada-Mexico-Caribbean requirement.
Q. Why was the change made?
A. Congress approved it in 2004 after homeland security officials said they were concerned that with no passport requirement, terrorists or illegal aliens could more easily get into the US from Canada or Mexico. With hundreds of different kinds of state-issued identifications formerly authorized as proof of identity for air travelers coming from those countries, it was difficult for border agents to detect fraudulent IDs.
Q. Does the passport policy affect people driving into the US or coming by boat?
A. Not yet. But under current government laws, sometime between next January and June 2009 -- officials expect to disclose in the next two weeks how soon -- you will need a passport or new passport-like identity card to drive into the US or come by ferry.
Q. How has the policy affected New Englanders?
A. At Logan International Airport for the first three months of this year, travel to and from Canada was down 12.3 percent, or 15,950 people. Logan spokesman Phil Orlandella said officials think the passport requirement played some role depressing Canadian air travel. However, travel to Bermuda and the Caribbean was up 4 percent from a year earlier.
Travel to and from Mexico and other Latin American destinations was down 46.1 percent, possibly because of passport requirements deterring vacationers from heading to Mexico and because of cutbacks in Aeromexico flights to Mexico City. Local congressmen say they've been deluged with complaints about people whose travel plans were snarled by the passport delay. For example, at the office of US Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat, aides are handling 25 to 30 passport complaints from constituents every week, 10 times as many as a year ago.
Q. Where can I get more information?
Peter J. Howe can be reached at email@example.com.