Ask Shelly: Cruise to Bahamas without a passport for a 2-year-old?

Map of the Bahamas

Just a hop, skip, and a jump from home? Not without your passport, buddy.

Here are some very important details all travelers should be aware of if considering a Caribbean cruise without passports.

Hi Shelly, We have been planning on cruising to the Bahamas with our two year old (probably stupidly) with just a birth certificate. We leave from Orlando, cruise to Freeport, Nassau, and then back to Orlando, thus coming and going from same US port so birth cert. OK. However, just learned of the fact that in the eventuality there was some emergency we could not fly him home out of the Bahamas on just the birth cert. True or not true? Anything I can do at this late a date other than cross our fingers? – We leave Saturday (3/16) and do not live in big city where passports are available fast. Thanks!

TRUE. First let’s clarify why in this day and age anyone can actually cruise from the U.S. to other countries without a passport–when it was no longer allowed just a few years ago. While U.S. citizens must now have a valid passport or passport card to travel across the border and back–even driving over the border to Canada in the family car or walking across the border on foot–there was a small revision to the sea travel requirement concerning only one very specific situation in which a U.S. citizen might still get by on certain cruises with only a certified state birth certificate. I emphasize MIGHT, and you should always confirm this with your cruise line if you’re banking on it. Here is how that very specific situation is described by the U.S. Department of State:

Sea Travel: U.S. citizens traveling to The Bahamas by sea on private watercraft or most commercial vessels must have a valid passport.  Those traveling by sea on an officially-designated “closed-loop cruise”, meaning that the port of entry is the same port as the port of re-entry upon return to the U.S.,   may enter using a passport, passport card, or other Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) compliant document, however, it is prudent   to obtain a passport before travel in case of an unforeseen emergency that requires a cruise passenger to disembark and return by air. 

If you are seriously considering leaving the U.S. by ship with any member of your family NOT holding a valid passport, you should first confirm with your cruise line that your specific cruise qualifies (I urge the reader to do so if she hasn’t already!). And even still, I would never personally recommend any traveler choose to exit the U.S. without a valid passport for the reason this reader alludes to above.

Remember how you now need a passport or passport card to drive your car or walk across the Canadian border? The only way you are getting back to the U.S. legally is through your same port of departure…and by sea. If you get somber news from home while away or someone breaks his foot para-sailing, flying your family home mid-cruise without a passport is not an option.  Even if you’re currently visiting a port of call that is much closer to home than your port of departure and return.

One more very important detail: If anyone in your family is planning to cruise without a passport, make sure the birth certificate you provide is issued by the state, not by the hospital, and is a certified copy (notarized) with a raised seal. If there are any name variations on the document proving your child’s identity and relationship (eg. mother’s maiden name appears instead of mother’s name on passport), you will also need any bridging documents to verify the relationship. Just one more reason why it’s preferable to travel with passports.

Paula, I realize it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get your daughter’s passport in time for this cruise, but I hope that you will have an uneventful vacation and your question here will help other families planning cruises make a more informed decision in the future–yours included!

travels with baby book coverFor the 411 on getting your child’s first passport–and passport photo (even when he can’t yet support his head), see Chapter 6: The Baby Abroad in Travels with Baby, For more help planning a cruise with a baby, toddler, or preschooler, see Part VII of Travels with Baby: The Ultimate Guide for Planning Travel with Your Baby, Toddler, and Preschooler.

Related posts:

Five Things You Should Know Before Planning a Cruise with a Baby or Toddler

Ten Things You Should Know Before Planning a Cruise with Kids (Family Travel 411)

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Safe journeys,

Shelly Rivoli, author of the award-winning Travels with Baby and Take-Along Travels with Baby 

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3 Comments

  1. Paula

    OK – So we made it to and from no problem. It seemed that before we went, everyone thought it was a terrible idea to travel without a passport and only a birth certificate for our 2 year old, Shelly included. Once we got to the ship it seemed like half the people didn’t have passports. So, you CAN cruise out of and into the same US port with just a birth certificate. I am with Shelly though, not worth the worry, get a passport, if you can. If you are stuck from a timing perspective, know that it will work and has for many, without a passport, as long as you follow the rules to a T. Just do remember there is NO way you are getting home other than that ship if there is an emergency. Thanks! Paula

  2. Houston

    Just confirming Shelly’s incredibly insightful response. I’ve had the distinct pleasure of dealing with this personally (trying to catch an emergency flight home mid vacation), and a couple of children in our group were traveling with birth certificates.

    Fortunately there were enough of us to to leave a couple of adults behind, but it was a NIGHTMARE!!

    1. Shelly Rivoli (Post author)

      Thanks for sharing your experience – I think everyone should definitely know what they’re getting into before agreeing to cruise without passports for kids – especially babies.

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