You asked: Is a passport required for my Mexico cruise?

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By The Way Concierge digs into the (surprisingly) complicated rules for travel by sea.

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We’re going on a very short cruise from California to Mexico this spring. Do we need passports for our kids, even if we don’t get off the ship? — Ben, Springfield, Va.

There’s a difference between what you need and what is a good idea to have.

Let’s begin with the first: On most cruise lines and for most itineraries, a voyage that starts and ends at the same U.S. port and stays in the Western Hemisphere will not require any American citizen — child or adult — to have a passport.

These are called closed-loop cruises, and they only need proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate plus a government-issued photo ID, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. For people under 16, a birth certificate will suffice. Popular cruise lines including Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian detail their requirements and any exceptions online.

A sailing that leaves from one U.S. port and ends at another — or starts in the United States and ends at a foreign destination — would not be classified as a closed-loop cruise. Everyone, including kids, would need a passport in that case.

There are some caveats, warns Teresa Tennant, senior vice president of the travel planning company Cruise Specialists. Some cruise companies, including Holland America Line and Princess Cruises, say that all members of a party must have a passport if minors are traveling with only one adult.

Some other cruise lines, such as the luxury Regent Seven Seas Cruises, require a passport for all sailings.

“It’s important to always check with the cruise line, because they can set their own rules that are actually above and beyond,” Tennant said.

Customs and Border Protection also urges travelers to check with their cruise company, travel agent and destination to confirm what’s required to enter foreign countries on an itinerary.

Whether or not you are required to have a passport, cruise lines and experts say it’s smart to have one before setting sail. The task isn’t quite as onerous as it used to be, now that wait times have returned to pre-pandemic norms of six to eight weeks for routine service and two to three weeks for the expedited process.

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Cruise lines say they strongly recommend that passengers opt for the passport over other forms of identification.

“A passport is the hassle-free, gold standard for traveling between countries,” Royal Caribbean says on its website. “Boarding and disembarking through customs with a passport is usually faster than other types of ID documents.”

The U.S. State Department says travelers might need their passport “in the event of an unexpected medical evacuation or if the ship docks at an alternate port.” Travelers would also need their passports if they showed up late in a foreign port and the ship left without them — which has happened to some U.S. passengers recently.

“You should bring your passport even if your cruise says you won’t need it,” the State Department says on its information page for cruise ship passengers.

Colleen McDaniel, editor in chief of the news and review site Cruise Critic, said in an email that it would be much more difficult to get home without a passport if someone had to leave the ship.

“In such a case, you might have to rely on help from a U.S. embassy or consulate to return, which can take time,” she said.

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More travel tips

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Cheap flights: Follow our best advice for scoring low airfare, including setting flight price alerts and subscribing to deal newsletters. If you’re set on an expensive getaway, here’s a plan to save up without straining your credit limit.

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Expert advice: Our By The Way Concierge solves readers’ dilemmas, including whether it’s okay to ditch a partner at security, or what happens if you get caught flying with weed. Submit your question here. Or you could look to the gurus: Lonely Planet and Rick Steves.

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