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United States Travelers to Canada, Mexico and
the Caribbean Will Soon Need Passports

(April 27, 2005) --Once a sign of cachet for international jetsetters, passports are about to become a more common possession.

Thanks to new international travel regulations announced recently by the U.S. State and Homeland Security departments, Americans leaving the country -- even for a weekend trip to Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean -- are going to need a passport to return home. Passports have long been a requirement for travel overseas -- meaning generally trips to another continent. Americans going to neighboring countries needed only proof of citizenship to guarantee their return to the country -- if they were asked at all.

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, announced two weeks ago, will change that. Citing post-9/11 security concerns, the departments said requiring the documents will both expedite travel and provide better security for travelers.

The changes will be phased in over the next two years:

--Starting Dec. 31, a passport will be required for all travel to or from the Caribbean, Bermuda, Central America and South America.

--Starting Dec. 31, 2006, a passport will be required for all air and sea travel to or from Mexico and Canada.

--Starting Dec. 31, 2007, a passport will be necessary for all border crossings, regardless of destination or method of travel. If people aren't aware of the changes, they're going to be hearing about them soon.

Beaver County Prothonotary Nancy Werme, whose office processes passport applications, said local travel agents have been preaching that passports are a good idea since 9/11. "Even before it was required, a lot of the travel agents in the area have been telling their customers that it's a good idea to have one anyway," Werme said. "We saw it in our office, about six months after 9/11 -- all of a sudden, we started spending a lot more time processing those applications."

Beverly McCarter, co-owner of McCarter Coach and Tour in Chippewa Township, said her employees aren't waiting for the requirements to take effect -- they're advising customers now to start thinking about getting a passport for that casino trip to Niagara Falls or Windsor, Ontario.

"Our feeling has been that it's a good idea anyway, and now, we want people to be prepared," McCarter said. "It can take a little time to get one, and we don't want our customers to be stuck without one." So if international travel is on your schedule, it's time to get a passport.

And now might be a good time to do it, for a couple of reasons: The state department says we're in the middle of the peak processing time for new passports, and because it can take some time.

Werme said her office, in the Beaver County Courthouse on Third Street in Beaver, is a one-stop shop for passports. For people 14 or older, here's what Werme said you'll need: proof of citizenship, usually a stamped copy of a birth certificate; proof of identity, generally a driver's license; two identical photographs, exactly 2 inches by 2 inches, taken within the last six months.

In Allegheny County, the clerk of courts office processes the applications. That office is in the courthouse on Grant Street in downtown Pittsburgh.

Kids age 14 and younger can get a passport, but both of the child's parents must accompany the child making the application, Werme said. You'll also need some money: The federal government takes $67 for people over 16 years old and $52 for those younger. The county also gets a $30 administrative fee, regardless of the applicant's age. And the staffers in the prothonotary's office can take the pictures, for an extra $10. Finding out how long it takes depends on whom you ask. The state department says to expect six to eight weeks; Werme tells local customers to plan on four to six.

"But we can often get one done in 30 business days," she said. "It depends on how busy we are."

If a traveler is caught needing a passport sooner than that, it can be done -- but it becomes more expensive very quickly. Werme's office can expedite applications -- getting them done in four working days -- but that process requires an extra $60 fee plus additional costs to overnight applications and the finished document. And, if you really, really need it now, Werme said you can schedule an appointment to apply in person at the Philadelphia Passport Agency -- and yes, additional fees apply.

Werme said she wasn't surprised by the new regulations. "We've all gotten used to some new things post-9/11, and I guess this is one more," she said. "But I've always thought this is a good investment - it's good for 10 years, and it's always made things easier for international travel. Now, it's going to be one more thing we need to do."


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Copyright (c) 2005, Beaver County Times, Pa.

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