If you're traveling outside the U.S. this year, here are two pieces of advice: Get or renew your passport now, and think twice before planning a car trip to Mexico or Canada in June.
That's when we may see the biggest change ever for Western Hemisphere travel. Starting June 1, Americans will need to show a passport, a passport card or other document to return to the U.S. by land or sea from Mexico and Canada.
Despite assurances from agencies involved, there may be glitches and delays. Two years ago, the last big change in entry rules - requiring a passport for air passengers returning from Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean and Bermuda - inspired a stampede of passport applications and created confusion at airports. Some travelers waited months for their passports, and others just stayed home.
Although passport demand and wait times have recently fallen, and the State Department has ramped up staffing and facilities, the new change will affect far more Americans than the 2007 rules change.
Just how many, though, is hard to quantify. Out of more than 1 million people, both U.S. and foreign citizens, who legally enter the U.S. each day, about three-fourths arrive by land from Mexico or Canada, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
But the agency doesn't keep track of how many are repeat crossers or use documents that won't be accepted after June 1, said spokeswoman Kelly Ivahnenko. So it can't predict how many Americans will need to order a passport or passport card by June.
What to do to be prepared? First, study up. Second, do some planning.
A little history: In 2004, Congress decided to plug a potential hole in border security that had allowed Americans to present various types of identification, such as driver's licenses, birth certificates or sometimes nothing, when re-entering the U.S. from certain neighbor countries.
It passed a law that, when fully implemented, would require citizens of the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Caribbean countries and Bermuda to show passports or other secure documents that established identity and nationality in order to enter the U.S. from these nearby nations.
In January 2007, the U.S. government began requiring a passport to fly back to the U.S. from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda. In January 2008, it said it would stop accepting oral declarations at sea and land checkpoints. And on June 1, it plans to fully implement the new document requirements for land and sea crossings.
What you need now: Generally, you need a passport to enter the U.S. by air from any foreign country. If you enter by land or sea from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean or Bermuda, you may not need a passport, but you do need at least a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship, plus a government-issued photo ID, such as a driver's license. Children 18 or younger need only a birth certificate for land and sea entry from these areas.
What you'll need starting June 1: If you're arriving from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean or Bermuda by land or sea, you'll generally have several choices: a passport; a passport card, a new type of ID that the U.S. government began issuing in 2008; an enhanced driver's license, a new high-tech version offered by a few states; or a "Trusted Traveler" card such as SENTRI and NEXUS for frequent border crossers.
There will be various exceptions. U.S. and Canadian children younger than 16, for example, will need only proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate; in organized groups, the cutoff will be age 18.
Passengers on cruise ships that sail round-trip from a U.S. port may need only a birth certificate and a government-issued photo ID (although the cruise line or foreign countries they visit may require a passport.)
You'll find a summary of the current and new rules at a Web site maintained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, getyouhome.gov.
How to get the right stuff: The State Department's travel Web site, travel.state.gov, is one-stop shopping for information. If you're renewing a passport, you can download the form from the Web site and mail it in. If it's your first time, you can visit any one of thousands of "passport acceptance facilities," such as post offices, to get what you need.
Go to a passport agency only if you need your passport in less than two weeks for travel or less than four weeks in order to obtain a foreign visa. You'll need to make an appointment.
A passport costs $100 for adults and $85 for children younger than 16 (renewals are less); a passport card costs $45 for adults and $35 for children younger than 16.
It's recently been taking about three weeks to process applications, the State Department says, but allow more time to make sure you get your passport.