Ahhh, the cruise. It’s the ultimate hands-off, let-someone-else-plan-your-trip getaway. Cruises bring a lot to the table. You get to see a variety of places, catch some rays, enjoy water views, and kick back and relax while someone else does the navigating. And the planning. And as much of the decision-making as you so desire.
But, there’s an unclear detail that may confuse your otherwise stress-free cruise plans.
Do you need a passport for your cruise, or not?
You may have heard mixed advice, with some folks saying that cruises are great because you don’t even need to pack a passport. Others may recall their own cruise disaster where a passport was a must — and they didn’t have one. So, what’s the deal? How do you know when you need to pack your passport for a cruise, or even build in time to apply for your passport, and when you can leave it at home?
If you’re short on time, the quickest answer that ensures you won’t wind up in a pickle is to pack your passport whenever you’re leaving the country, just to be safe.
But, if you’re looking for the specifics of when you don’t technically need a passport (maybe you forgot to renew yours, don’t have one, or are halfway to your cruise port already and accidentally left your passport at home), read on for the destinations that might let you off the hook. For extra certainty, you can also do research into the specific ports listed on your cruise line’s itinerary to see if they require a passport for entry.
In general, cruise or no cruise, there are several U.S. territories and commonwealths with the luxurious feel of a faraway land that allow passport-free entry for U.S. citizens.
Puerto Rico is a United States commonwealth and all U.S. citizens can travel there and to its surrounding islands, Vieques and Culebra, without a passport. The same is true for a lesser known (and lesser populated) commonwealth, the Northern Mariana islands, composed of 15 islands in the northwest Pacific.1
If you’ve got your sights set on the US Virgin Islands, Guam, or American Samoa, all three U.S. territories are also all fair game for passport-less American citizens.
Take note though; just because you don’t need a passport to visit these destinations doesn’t mean you won’t need any official documentation. Make sure you have a government-issued photo ID, naturalization paperwork, or birth certificate.
When it comes to needing a passport on a cruise, not all cruises have the same requirements. If you’ve heard about a cruise where a passport isn’t required, you’re most likely being told about a “closed-loop” cruise. A closed-loop cruise is one that starts and finishes at the same U.S. port and only sails to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, the Bahamas or Bermuda.2 For these closed-loop cruises, U.S. citizens do not need a passport for entry into the qualifying countries along their cruise’s route or to return back to the United States.
However, if for some reason your cruise ship needs to alter course, it is possible that they will need to dock in a foreign country that plays by a different set of rules. In other words, even if your cruise line states that you do not need a passport for their particular journey, it is always a good idea to pack it just in case.
If a cruise begins at one port and ends in another port, even if they’re both in the United States, passengers are required to have a valid passport. Similarly, if a cruise starts or finishes in a foreign port, travelers must come prepared with a current passport.3
You will also need a passport for cruises traveling through the British Virgin Islands or Cuba.4,5 And of course, a valid passport is required for any cruise touring Europe, traveling across the Atlantic Ocean, or originating in other continents — where you won’t even make it onto the plane that will get you there without a valid passport.
According to the U.S. Department of State, it is recommended that any person taking a cruise from the United States travels with a passport. This recommendation covers travelers in case of an emergency — for example, an emergency medical evacuation — or if the ship needs to stop at a foreign passport-required dock.6
As a rule of thumb, you should plan to take your current U.S. passport (with a date that is good for at least 6 months through the end of your trip) with you when you’re packing for a cruise. If you are traveling to U.S. territories or are cruising within a “closed-loop,” your cruise line may not require a passport. However, you will need to be able to show proof of citizenship in the form of a government-issued photo ID, naturalization paperwork, or birth certificate.
Our final advice? If you have a current passport, bring it with you when you set sail on your next cruise. It could save you some major anxiety and travel headaches, and after all, relaxing is what a cruise is all about!