Several decades ago, a high-powered Madison Avenue ad man I know was heading to an important client meeting in Frankfurt. He had a reservation for a flight on Lufthansa, but when he got to JFK, he realized that his passport had just expired. Being a resourceful sort, he found a pencil, ducked into a handyman’s room, and – very carefully – altered the expiration date. Maybe he was able to change a three to an eight, or something, but whatever the particulars, he got on the flight. Needless to say, that wouldn’t work today with machine-readable documents, and it wasn’t a very good idea even then.
Fast-forward to last month. An Oregon friend has a son who works for an international organization, and he was on his way to an assignment in South Africa. Everything was OK on his flight from Oregon to Washington, but when he arrived for his connection to Johannesburg, the agent refused to board him because his passport, although valid, did not have enough extra pages. He was forced to delay his flight until he could get either a new passport or a book of extra pages.
These days, you need a passport just about anywhere you want to travel outside the United States – and even to get back in the United States from most countries. The only exceptions are a few nearby island countries, Canada and Mexico, where you can cross borders with a bit less, but only by ground or sea. So don’t even think about leaving the United States without a valid passport.
Unfortunately, even a valid passport often isn’t enough. I spot-checked a few dozen of the countries Americans are most likely to visit, and I found some important gotchas:
• Lots of countries aren’t content with a valid passport if it’s due to expire soon. Instead, they demand a passport with remaining validity ranging from one to six months, often measured from the end of your visit, not the beginning. Among them: Bolivia, China, Ecuador, Estonia, French Polynesia (Tahiti), Jordan, and most countries in Southeast Asia.
• A few countries require one or two blank pages in your passport. The only ones I found in my check were South Africa and Turkey, but there are probably others.
• Lots of popular destination countries require visas issued in advance, including Brazil, China, India, Russia and Vietnam. Several others require visas but issue them on arrival at your entry airport.
• A few countries, including Australia and Sri Lanka, require you to arrange an “electronic travel authority” in advance, which you can do online.
• A few South American countries – notably Argentina and Chile – assess a $160 fee on U.S. visitors in retaliation for a fee the U.S. imposes on their citizens, but Chile lets you pay on arrival.
• Many countries have complex rules about travel with minor children, especially when traveling with only one parent. Some require written authorization from both parents, even when divorced.
My spot-check was based on entry requirements for travelers who are tourists and plan to stay only a limited time, and maximum stay periods for tourists typically vary from 30 to 90 days. If your travel plans include work, business or study in a foreign country, requirements typically vary and are generally stiffer and more involved.
Countries don’t fool around with you if you arrive without proper documentation. Instead, they’ll refuse to admit you and make you get on a plane heading back where you came from – at your expense. Airlines are supposed to check for compliance before you leave the United States, but problems sometimes slip through the cracks.
Unless you’re heading to very familiar territory – mainly the Caribbean or Western Europe – I strongly recommend you visit the State Department’s detailed country-by-country rundowns at travel.state.gov/travel/. The “Entry/Exit Requirements for U.S. Citizens” sections provide all the details on various red tape requirements. And the other sections provide lots of useful information as well.
Email Ed Perkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many countries are not content with a valid passport if it’s due to expire soon.