When do you need a passport to go on a cruise?

U.S. citizens are accustomed to bringing their passport when traveling across borders by land or air, but what about by water?

Do you need to bring your passport if your cruise begins and ends in the United States? What if the itinerary includes a stop in Canada or a Caribbean country? Are the rules for every foreign port the same? We look at when you must have a passport, when you can get away without one, and why it's a good idea to bring one even if you don't technically have to. 

Cruises that require a passport

Any cruise that begins or ends at a foreign port

You'll need your passport for any cruises where you're required to enter a foreign country. For example, you might begin a Danube river cruise by flying into Budapest, where your passport would be checked while going through Hungarian customs. 

The same would be true if you took a one-way trip starting in the U.S., such as Cunard's Transatlantic Crossing from New York City to Southampton in the United Kingdom: You would need your passport to enter the U.K.

Cruises that begin and end at different U.S. ports

You'll also need your passport to re-enter the U.S. if you take a cruise that departs from an American port, stops at at least 1 foreign port, and returns to a different American port. Common examples of this include Panama Canal cruises, which might depart from Florida, dock in Panama, Costa Rica, and Mexico, and then end in California.

You would want your passport on this kind of cruise anyway so that you can leave the ship at foreign ports, but even if you stayed on the ship the entire time, you'd still need your passport at U.S. customs. As a result, cruise lines themselves typically require a passport on these itineraries.

Some countries in the Western Hemisphere, such as the Bahamas, allow American tourists on closed-loop cruises to visit with a state-issued ID and an original birth certificate in lieu of a passport.

Cruises that don't require a passport

Cruises that begin and end at the same U.S. port

Also known as "closed-loop" cruises, these itineraries technically do not require U.S. citizens to bring a passport as long as the cruise stays within the Western Hemisphere. A typical example would be a cruise that departs from Tampa, Florida, visits the Bahamas, and then returns to Tampa. 

In place of a passport, U.S. citizens on closed-loop cruises have the option of bringing a state-issued ID card (such as a driver's license) and an original birth certificate. With both documents, they can re-enter the U.S. and disembark in some countries, such as Jamaica and the Bahamas. Other countries, such as Barbados, require a passport for all American visitors, and if a cruise stops in one, the cruise line itself will typically require passports.

While a passport is not required on many closed-loop cruises, AAA strongly encourages travelers to bring one for 2 reasons:

  • Convenience: As noted above, travelers without a passport must present both a state-issued ID (to prove their identity) and an original birth certificate (to prove U.S. citizenship). A passport is an easier way to prove both in 1 convenient document, especially if you'll be presenting it at many different ports.
  • Safety: If unforeseen circumstances arise during a closed-loop cruise, you may have difficulty without a passport. For example, if you become ill or the ship has mechanical problems and you must unexpectedly fly home from a foreign airport, not having a passport will be a major obstacle. 

Cruises completely within the United States

If a cruise only calls at American ports, there's no need for a passport, just like if you're traveling between U.S. states by land or air. In practice, however, these cruises are very rare. A notable example is Norwegian Cruise Lines' inter-island Hawai‘i cruise aboard the U.S.-flagged Pride of America, which visits 5 Hawaiian islands on a round-trip tour that begins and ends in Honolulu.

Why are completely American itineraries so rare in cruising?

While many cruise ships sail from American ports, the vast majority of them are technically registered in other countries, such as Panama and Bermuda. American law doesn't allow foreign-flagged ships to transport American passengers directly between American ports; only American-registered ships can do this. 

To comply with the law, foreign-flagged ships sailing from U.S. ports will add at least 1 stop in a foreign port. This is why, for example, cruises between the U.S. mainland and Hawai‘i typically have a stop in Canada or Mexico. 

Traveling soon & need a passport?

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Step-by-step instructions, plus how to have your passport photos taken at a AAA branch.

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