By David G. Molyneaux, editor, The Travel Mavens
My first U.S. passport arrived in the mail in 1971, and I felt like a man of the world, itching to cross the seas and hit the roads on what turned out to be the beginning of a lifetime of international journeys.
I saw that first passport not only as proof that I was a U.S. citizen, but also as a written guarantee of my freedom to leave the country, to get back in, and to expect a measure of help and protection by American embassies while I was away.
Over the years, the more I have learned about tragedies in other countries when their citizens were unable to obtain the necessary paperwork to escape tyranny and/or death, the more I cherish my freedom and that blue passport that I have carried around the world.
So I am a little surprised at some Americans' negative reactions to requirements for passports when leaving the United States and traveling across the borders to Mexico and Canada.
Why not require passports?
What is there to lose? Passports are easier to carry than birth certificates and much easier for border police to verify as authentic.
Surely you don't think you are telling secrets to Big Brother when you send in the government passport forms; consumers give away nearly as much personal information when they fill out a product warranty card for a toaster.
And no one makes a fuss about having to carry around a driver's license to motor to the local grocery store.
There are several good reasons to own a passport.
All Americans who travel outside the United States should carry a passport, even where it is not required, because it offers a measure of protection in case of emergency, such as getting sick, injured, robbed or arrested. Once you leave our borders, the rules change, and you may need help from U.S. representatives in foreign countries. A passport gives you access to help.
Outside the United States, lots of people might say they are U.S. citizens, but only those with passports have proof. Even a lost passport has value (always keep a separate copy of the page with your picture on it), because the passport can be replaced quickly, allowing you to continue your international travel.
Get a passport now
Soon you will need a passport even for simple driving trips across borders. The passport push by the departments of State and Homeland Security are efforts to tighten border control in the future, but flashing a U.S. passport has always been the best way to get across the border without difficulty.
A document indicating proof of citizenship always is required to enter the United States legally. Most countries require a passport to gain entry, and the State Department recommends a passport as evidence of citizenship in all cases. In some instances, such as on the highways leading from Mexico and Canada, U.S. immigration authorities have accepted a valid driver's license and a birth certificate -- documents that vary in structure and potential for forgery.
Even that flexibility is fading, as airlines require passports as proof of citizenship before they will let you get on a plane to Canada or Mexico.
Cruise lines are being required to get stricter about passports. That makes sense, because even if you don't intend to stay in another country during a cruise, if you become sick or injured during a visit to a foreign shore or become sick on the ship and have to be evacuated to a foreign city, you could be in serious limbo without a passport.
A passport costs $97 for the first one, which is roughly equal to two tickets to a concert or an amusement park. Renewal passports are $67. CLICK to learn more.
Don't wait for the international travel mood to strike you, as the process to obtain your first passport can take weeks, or possibly months during the busy spring season of preparation for summer travel.
My first passport was retired long ago -- they're only good for 10 years -- but you get to keep the old ones, and mine are full of memories, stamps and some blurry imprints from forgotten border stations in the middle of nowhere.
(Quick quiz: Where was I when I entered a country that stamped on my passport, Blowing Point?)
My old passports are reminders of great trips and wonderful people, as well as countries that no longer exist (East Germany, known as the DDR) and cities with new names (Leningrad of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, now St. Petersburg, Russia).
The more I travel, the more I know how many people around the world would gladly trade places with me, how many would give everything they own for such a passport to freedom.
Trivia question answer: Anguilla, a Caribbean British overseas territory off the coast of St. Martin.