February 15, 2009

Update: Apply Now for Canadian and American Passports

If you haven't heard about the problems in Canada in 2007 relating to Passport Canada's inability to cope with the massive influx of applicants below is one opinion piece from the Vancouver Sun at the time. There's not much individuals can do when there is a massive backlog of applications...but you can apply now to beat the rush when almost everybody on both sides of the border will need a passport to travel across the International Boundary by land.

It's time for heads to roll at Passport Canada
Vancouver Sun

What is it going to take for the managers at Passport Canada to get their act together? Furious people waiting in endless lines, angry letters and phone calls to Passport Canada staff and to newspapers, and media reports and editorials so far seem to have had little effect.

The lineups continue, as does Passport Canada's practice of telling people that they're not going to be seen after they've waited hours in the cold and rain. In fact, the agency's arrogance has reached new heights in the past few weeks.

Consider, for example, The Vancouver Sun's attempts to find out merely who's in charge of the Vancouver office. Calls to the offices of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay and Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day failed to yield an answer.

Letters and phone calls to Passport Canada CEO Gerald Cossette went unreturned, which suggests he has no interest in serving the public or taking responsibility for the mess he's created. And Ottawa-based Passport Canada representative Fabian Lengelle told a reporter that he wasn't sure whether he should release the name of the person in charge in Vancouver. Now that's hardly the right attitude for a government agency that's supposed to be serving the public.

Ultimately, it took a tip from the public for The Sun to learn that Hal Hickey is the director of Passport Canada's western region. Naturally, Hickey couldn't be reached for comment.

Perhaps these men are hiding because they don't have a clue as to what they're doing. After all, there's plenty of evidence to show Passport Canada's negligence. It's now been more than three months since the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative -- which requires Canadians travelling by air to the U.S. to present a passport -- went into effect. That should have been more than enough time for the agency to have resolved the continuing problems.

In fact, Passport Canada had a lot longer than three months to prepare for the increase in passport applications. Auditor-General Sheila Fraser warned the federal government in mid-2006 that the agency wasn't ready for the increase in applications. Naturally, nothing was done -- which has led to the current crisis.

Despite Fraser's warning, Passport Canada doesn't even seem willing to admit its negligence. Lengelle, who to his credit is one of the few officials willing to even speak to the media, denied that the agency was unprepared, allowing only that it was "under-prepared."

However Lengelle wants to spin it, Passport Canada officials were and are negligent, and were and are arrogant. Since they seem unable or unwilling to resolve the problem -- and unwilling to even respond to public inquiries -- it's high time that we hear from Peter MacKay or Stephen Harper on this matter.

Even more so, it's time they dealt with the officials at Passport Canada, the public servants who have little interest in serving the public.

And on the American side they seem to be getting ready...but you should still apply as soon as possible. Right now, with the decrease in applications you'll have your new passport in weeks. With the few exceptions/alternatives (Children, Active Military, Native-American/ Enhanced Driver's License, Passport Card, Nexus, etc...) you'll need a passport to re-enter the country in three and a half months so I would apply as soon as you can to ensure you can still come to Canada this summer.

Make passport plans now for Mexico and Canada trips

Starting June 1, U.S. citizens will have to show a passport or other special document for land or sea travel. Be prepared for any hitches.

By Jane Engle

February 03, 2009

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 (unless Congress changes the deadline), Americans will need to show a passport, a passport card or other special 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 has recently fallen along with wait times, and the State Department has ramped up staffing and facilities since 2007, the upcoming 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, reacting to issues raised by the Sept. 11 attacks, 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 reentering 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.

What followed were years of increasingly complicated rules, shifting deadlines and the Great Passport Meltdown of 2007, in which wait times for passports doubled to 12 weeks or more.

Lobbyists for border countries, employers and travel industries joined the fray. Changes were phased in by mode of travel -- air, land or sea -- with plenty of exceptions.

It was not just where you traveled but how you traveled that determined what documents you would need. 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: The same rules apply for air travel: passport required.

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 last year; an enhanced driver's license, a new high-tech version offered by a few states; or so-called Trusted Traveler cards such as SENTRI and NEXUS for frequent border crossers.

There will be various exceptions for land and sea crossings from these destinations. 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 website maintained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, www.getyouhome.gov.

How to get the right stuff: The State Department's travel website, www.travel.state.gov, (click on "Passports for U.S. Citizens") is one-stop shopping for information on passports and passport cards. It has instructions and forms.

But you don't have to go to D.C. or even to a regional passport agency (there are two in California, one in L.A. and one in San Francisco) to get these documents.

If you're renewing, you can download the form from the State Department website and mail it in. If it's your first time, you can visit any one of thousands of so-called 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.

The bottom line: A passport gives you the most flexibility; it's good everywhere. To save money, you might consider a passport card if you plan to cross into nearby countries only by land or sea, or as an extra ID.

But also consider this: You never know when you may need a passport.

While reporting on processing backlogs in 2007, I met a family struggling to get passports to fly to El Salvador to visit a relative who had fallen ill. Processing a passport can take days, weeks or even months if you have paperwork problems. A crisis may not wait.

It's all about thinking ahead.

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