On June 1, 2009, new passport requirements for U.S. citizens traveling in the Western Hemisphere took effect. These new regulations state that all U.S. citizens traveling by airplane outside the United States, as well as those traveling by land or sea, must present a U.S. passport to reenter the United States. There is a major exception, however. Passengers cruising from a U.S. port and returning to the same U.S. port after traveling to Western Hemisphere countries are not required to show a passport to reenter the United States.
Passengers traveling on a "closed loop" cruise to the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada or Bermuda must present an official birth certificate and government issued photo ID upon returning to the United States. Children under the age of 16 can also continue to cruise using only a state-issued U.S. birth certificate or other acceptable forms of U.S. citizenship identification - even if they're not returning to the same port. Visit the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website at www.getyouhome.gov/html/lang_eng/eng_sa.html for more information. There are additional exemptions as well, so check the new guidelines carefully.
If you're cruising without a passport, it's important to check to make sure that your birth certificate is an original state-issued document. Official birth certificates will have a raised seal stamp. Copies will not be accepted. In addition, if your name is now different than what is shown on your birth certificate, it's wise to bring along your marriage certificate or any other legal document that shows the same name as your driver's license. Although not required, it's possible that immigration officials at your port of call could make things a bit difficult if your driver's license name does not match your birth certificate.
So, don't let the new regulations stop you from boarding a ship - it's still possible to cruise passport free. It's just important to choose your cruise wisely. For example, a Caribbean cruise that departs from and returns to Miami would qualify as a “closed loop” cruise under these new regulations and passengers could cruise passport free. A Caribbean cruise departing from New York and returning to Miami, however, would not be deemed a “closed loop” cruise and passports would be required.
It’s important to remember the risks of cruising without a passport, however. If your have to leave the cruise in a foreign port for any reason, such as an illness requiring hospitalization or to fly home, you will encounter problems clearing immigration upon your return. All passengers flying into the United States by plane must present a U.S. passport to reenter the United States. Unfortunately, there are no exceptions to that rule.