What’s in Your Wallet? Try a Passport Card
By Betsy Wade
As most of us have found out by now, on June 1, the U.S. snugged up its borders a bit more. After several postponed deadlines, the government enforced a requirement that a citizen returning to the U.S. from Canada, Mexico or any of 17 Caribbean nations have in hand the familiar passport booklet or, as a substitute, provided the trip is not by air, one of a few approved equivalents containing an electronic chip.
In times gone by, the U.S.-Canada line was often cited as the world's longest open border. A ferry trip to the Maritimes or a drive to Lake Louise required no passport on return, nor did a cruise to Barbados or drive into Mexico. But now the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, or WHTI –witty, as insiders call it — has brought monitoring to these borders. This "initiative," it goes without saying, is part of the Federal antiterrorism effort.
If that's the bad news for leisure travelers, the good news is that as the final enforcement date approached, the Federal government and a few states worked on ways to reduce the inconvenience for people who cross frequently by land into Canada or Mexico for work or for such recreation as sports outings – think of school hockey teams in Michigan — or to visit second homes or family members on the other side.
But these expedients, not yet widely reported, are also useful to leisure travelers in the Western Hemisphere.
In July 2008, the State Department began full production on passport cards. These cards hold electronic chips with the jaw-breaking name "vicinity-read radio frequency identification chips." One of these cards, in a foil-lined envelope, may be carried in your wallet as easily as a driver license, something most people can't do with a passport book.
Out of the envelope, the radio frequency number can be read from a short distance — for instance, as you approach the border barrier. If the border security officers see no reason to stop you, and you are by yourself, you can drive on through. Passengers in the car would also need to show identification at the barrier.
Putting a chip in the card was not unprecedented; the Department of State began putting chips into passport books in August 2007. Civil liberties groups are little pleased with the whole business, but most of our movements are already monitorable. E-Z passes, personal transit cards, and police officers with palm-sized access to databases have already let the bronco out of the barn.
Passport cards are easier to get than passports. If you already have a passport, a card is quite cheap — $20 — otherwise $45. But be aware, it's no good for air travel, even domestic, and no good outside the Western Hemisphere, whatever the travel mode. Its best use is for frequent trips over a border.
So far, the State Department says, 1.4 million of these passport cards have been issued and the demand picked up as the June 1 deadline approached. The biggest numbers have appeared in California, Texas, New York, Arizona, Florida and Michigan. Except for Florida, these are all border states, and in Florida people may commute to nearby islands. For more information: www.state.gov/travel.
In addition, four states are now offering driver licenses with chips and the power of a passport to get you home by land or sea from the same places: Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean. They are all northern border states: Washington, New York, Vermont and Michigan. These enhanced driver licenses, as they are known, cost extra; they must be obtained in person and if my experience is any example, some parts of the process are tedious.
One crucial way these licenses differ from the regular ones: you must be able to demonstrate that you are a resident of the state. And no surprise, your Social Security number will be linked to your license.
The State of Washington was the leader, holding intensive meetings with officials from British Columbia over a couple of years. Licenses with chips were first offered there in February 2008, and 70,000 have been sold so far, according to officials in the state capital.
New York State got on board in September 2008. New York is not pushing it, but when you get your license renewal materials, there's a little notice on the back of the envelope. New York had 11,284,546 conventional licenses last year, according to Nick Cantiello of the Department of Motor Vehicles; it now has 100,000 of the enhanced variety.
Vermont came next in December 2008. If you are a Vermont resident, so far you will have to go to Montpelier, the capital, to get an enhanced license. In six months, probably as a consequence of the difficulty, the state has issued only 4,000 of these licenses. Michael Charter, a spokesman for the Vermont Motor Vehicle Department, says that the department is upgrading its computer system and, facing a rise in rates for all licenses on July 1, had not set up regional offices to offer the new technology. In Vermont, the demand has come mostly from elderly people who cross into Canada for medical treatment or to fill prescriptions, and from people whose forebears were Canadian and who visit family members there.
Michigan, though it joined the group only this April, says it has the strongest reasons to provide a way to avoid carrying both a passport and a driver license daily. Kelly Chesney, spokeswoman for Michigan's secretary of state, says her state is the country's largest business partner with Canada. And many of these workers, she said, also own property in Canada.
The state's problem is made unusual by geography: all links with Canada cross water. Having to check everyone coming home by tunnel or bridge would be a problem. Ms. Chesney said: "We couldn't add a lane. We had to find another technology." Michigan has sold 35,000 of the new licenses, but Ms. Chesney says they are now turning requests around fast, two to three weeks, and about a thousand applications a day.
Since the immigration and customs people are Federal, driver licenses with chips from any of these four states are intended to get you through any land entry to the U.S. from Canada or Mexico Montana, Texas, Arizona, Minnesota, you pick it. In design, such a license should also get you back on US soil from a cruise ship from Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean. But I'm about to take a short cruise to Nova Scotia, and Cunard says it knows nothing of an enhanced driver license. Bring your passport, the line told our travel agent in effect, or stay on the pier. Asked about this, the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles said there had indeed been some glitches with cruise lines in the Caribbean. But in Brooklyn?
This should be interesting.