It used to be that all you needed to board a plane was a ticket, and crossing borders was a simple process. Today, planning a trip to a foreign country takes more planning, since getting a passport takes months. All Americans, even newborn babies, need passports to get into any other country – with just a few exceptions.
If you're flying out of the country, you must have a passport both to get into a foreign country and to be allowed back into the United States. If you're crossing a border by land or sea and you're 16 years old or older, you're also required to have a valid passport or another document that is approved by the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. These rules apply to everyone, meaning each one of your children – even a baby – needs to have a valid passport for foreign air travel.
If you're 16 or older, the only time you can enter foreign territory without a passport or Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative-approved document is if you're on a "closed loop cruise," meaning you leave from and return to the same U.S. port. You'll still have to show proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate, to be allowed onto the ship, and the customs officials at any destination might not allow you off without a passport. Children who are younger than 16 also may enter contiguous territory by land or sea without a passport. Basically, as long as a child is going to Canada or Mexico and isn't arriving by plane, she's only obligated to show a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship.
Types of Documents
All American passports are the same, but a child's passport isn't as valid for as long as an adult's is. If you're 16 or older when you apply for a passport, the document is valid for 10 years. If you're 15 or younger, it expires every five years. If you're 16 or older and want to travel to a contiguous territory by land or sea, you may also apply for a U.S. Passport Card. This card, which is a Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative-approved document, is cheaper than a passport book and fits in your wallet. But it's only valid for sea or land travel to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda. If you live in a state that borders Canada, you may be able to get an enhanced driver's license, which makes crossing the Canadian border simple and is also WHTI-approved.
You must apply for a passport in person, though you can renew your passport by mail. If you're applying for a child younger than 16, the child and both legal guardians, if applicable, must appear together to apply. Both guardians must sign the child's passport application. You can apply for a passport at one of thousands of passport acceptance facilities; many government offices and post offices hold this designation. It generally takes at least a month or two for a passport to be processed and delivered to you, so if you're planning to travel with a baby, take her to get a passport as soon you can.