Passports, visas and immunizations are important considerations when traveling internationally with children. The U.S. Department of State has a helpful tool that allows visitors to find passport, visa and immunization requirements for specific destinations. It is necessary to plan in advance to make sure that you have everything taken care of before your trip.
It used to be possible for U.S. citizens to travel to a number of countries with only their birth certificate or for minors to travel on their parent’s passport when flying abroad, but this is no longer possible. U.S. citizens can generally only travel within the U.S., to U.S. territories, to Canada or Mexico in limited circumstances or on certain closed loop cruises without a passport.
All U.S. citizen children traveling out of the country by air must have a valid passport that complies with the requirements of their destination and where necessary, a visa. Note that many countries require not only a valid passport at the time of entry but also for the duration of your stay or some time period afterwards. It is recommended that your passport will not expire for at least six months after your intended stay. When applying for a new passport, you should aim for it to arrive at least several weeks before traveling.
The U.S. Department of State publishes current processing times for passport applications. In our experience, children’s passports usually come more quickly than predicted, but you do not want to take the risk of not having your passport in time for travel. Expedited processing is available at an additional fee.
The passport application for children under 16 requires completed forms (available online in form filler and PDF formats), original/certified U.S. citizenship evidence (e.g. birth certificate), a photocopy for application, proof of parental relationship (e.g. birth certificate), form of identification for parents and photocopy for application, appropriate photograph of the applicant and the required fees. Make sure that you have completed (but unsigned) forms, all documentation, pictures and required copies before you go to the post office or library that you have confirmed processes passports.
If you plan to apply for a passport for your child as soon as possible after birth, you need to inform the hospital to expedite the birth certificate. Birth certificates can take a long time to process, and even with expedited status and multiple phone calls, my daughter’s took 30 days to be issued. My husband got certified copies on the day the birth certificate was issued, and we applied for her passport the next day so that we could travel to Mexico before the end of my 12 week maternity leave.
If completing the forms and collecting the documentation was not enough of a hurdle, passport photos can also be a bit of a hurdle, especially for a baby. You can get passport photos at Costco, Walgreens, FedEx and even some Post Offices. The picture needs to comply with stringent guidelines. Check the picture yourself before going to the Post Office. We once had a professional picture rejected and had to run to the closest CVS to the post office to have it retaken before submitting the application.
Because all of our children have traveled abroad before five months, they have needed passport photos at very young ages. While there is some leniency with infants’ photos, it can be extremely challenging to wake an infant to have a professional photo taken. After several failed attempts to get a professional picture of my daughter who was only a few weeks old, I took the picture myself with her sitting on a bouncy seat covered in a white sheet and then edited the picture using epassportphoto.com to make sure it complied with the size guidelines. I took over 100 shots and even enlisted the help of a visiting friend, but the resulting picture had my newborn daughter’s eyes open and looking at the camera, printing at Target cost me $.20 and the outtakes were fun.
To apply for a child’s passport, both parents and the child must go to the post office together with all completed forms (available online), required documentation and two copies of the child’s passport photo. Many post offices post the times that they handle passport applications. These times are likely during mid-day during the week, and we have found that information on the website may not be correct, but it is also very challenging or not possible to call in advance to verify. It’s ideal if you can go to the Post Office and verify passport application hours before you are actually near any sort of deadline, but we are typically not that organized.
The good news about passports is that they are valid for five years of unlimited international travel for children under 16 and for ten years for all applicants over 16.
If a visa is required for your destination, you need to inquire into specific visa rules and the various lengths of validity. Typically, the longer the duration of validity, the more expensive the visa. We traveled on 60-day e-tourist visas for India but had to apply during a specific window and complete final processing at the Bangalore Airport upon arrival. It was a bit of an added hassle to our middle of the night arrival, but far less expensive than the one-year visa. This option made sense for us because we did not expect a return trip in the near future.
While visas add an extra paperwork and fees into international travel plans to certain destinations, it is far easier for US citizens to obtain visas to visit other countries than it is for non-US citizens to get visas to travel to the US.
In addition to identifying required immunizations by destination, the Center for Disease Control suggests necessary immunizations and travel considerations. Your pediatrician may be able to administer these immunizations. We have found that our insurance generally covers the cost of non-standard immunizations such as Hepatitis A and typhoid, but it is important to call and inquire as soon as you know your travel plans because these immunizations might not be regularly stocked. Our pediatrician was willing to write required prescriptions for our India trip but had only one dose of the typhoid vaccine available and was unable to secure additional dosages for our other children. We were glad we asked, but it is still necessary to visit a travel doctor for prescriptions and immunizations before travel. There are not a lot of options in our area and most have very limited hours, so you have to schedule an appointment well in advance of your travel, if needed.
It is important to travel with photocopies of passports and visas for your entire family. If one ever goes missing, at least you will have your information.
If a child is traveling internationally with only one parent, the traveling parent needs to bring a copy of a Minor Travel Consent Letter signed by the non-traveling parent.
While paperwork is never fun, I promise it will be worth it when you get to your destination!
Check out our other Travel Tips for advice about traveling with kids.