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A Parent's Guide to Passports for Kids

Getting passports and traveling across borders gets complicated once you add kids. Here's what to keep in mind when obtaining family passports.
 

Learning Benefits

International travel with your children can be educational, inspirational, and life-changing — both for them and for you. It can also be stressful if you have passport snafus.

According to Brenda Sprague, the U.S. State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for passport services, family travelers should take the time to familiarize themselves with passport rules and regulations at least three months before an international trip — even if the trip is “just” to Canada or Mexico.

“It’s important to stay on top of [things],” she said. “The last thing you want to experience when you travel internationally with children is an unexpected problem at a border crossing.”

It Takes Two

The U.S. State Department requires that both mom and dad consent to a passport application for a child under the age of 16. If you’re married, it’s easiest if you both go down to the passport office in person with your child. If one of you can’t make it, they’ll accept a notarized letter granting permission for the passport from that parent.

For divorced and/or unmarried couples, it’s all about custody — if a court has granted sole custody to one parent, only that parent need consent; if a court has granted joint custody, then the above rules for married parents apply.

Single Parent Tips

If you’re a single parent, or if you’re a married parent traveling solo with your child, customs officials in other countries may require extra documents.

The Department of State website notes that if you’re traveling to Argentina or Spain, for instance, agents likely will require a notarized letter from the parent who’s not there. Also, a U.K. resident was questioned earlier this year upon returning to her home country because her surname and the surname of one of her children were different.

Sprague says it’s always a good idea for solo parents traveling with children to bring some sort of documentation, such as a notarized letter, from the absent parent, just in case.

Michelle Duffy, a technical project manager at Google, learned this the hard way. During a 2013 trip with her 12-year-old son from London to Dublin, Duffy was stopped by a Heathrow Airport immigration officer curious about why she and her son had different last names. He asked for a letter. Duffy didn’t have one.

“I slapped myself on the forehead and said, ‘I totally forgot’” she remembers. Luckily, “the officer said, ‘Sounds like you know what you're doing. Just remember it for the next time.’”

Mind the Dates

It pays to plan ahead in other ways, too. Sprague noted that it takes about four to six weeks to get a regular passport and two to three weeks to get an expedited one (which costs an extra $60). She added that at least 10 percent of all passport applications get kicked back because something's missing — a signature here, a certified birth certificate there — or a bad photo (see below for photo tips).

For those families with kids who already have passports, it’s also important to note renewal rules; though adult passports are valid for 10 years, child passports are only valid for 5.

“Some foreign countries won’t let anyone (adults or children) enter with less than six months left on your passport,” said Sprague. “Simply checking the expiration dates on passports can save families stress, time, and money.”

For more information about the Department of State’s regulations governing passports, visit travel.state.gov.

Getting a Passport: The Basics

Rules governing passports for minors are significantly different from rules governing passports for grown-ups. For starters, minors must apply in person, at U.S. Passport Agencies and Centers or at those U.S. Post Offices that handle passport transactions (find your closest passport office on the State Department's website). They also must have proof of citizenship — often, for youngsters, this means a notarized copy of a birth certificate.

Evidence of relationship (such as a birth certificate with parents' names) and parental consent are critical for establishing that all legal guardians have signed off on the passport. Finally, of course, are fees: $105 for the basic passport book and an additional $60 if you need expedited delivery.

Passport Pictures: Image Is Everything

All parents know how difficult it can be to get a child to sit still for a snapshot. Unfortunately, the government is not sympathetic to the rigors of this undertaking for the purposes of a passport picture. According to the State Department, parents must photograph their baby or toddler alone, and the child should be looking at the camera with his or her eyes open. To produce a good photo, state officials suggest laying the baby on his or her back on a white sheet (and making sure there are no shadows when you snap the pic), or covering a car seat with a white sheet and sitting the baby in it.

Mercifully, so long as the passport is still valid, parents do not need to apply for new documents if the appearance of a child under the age of 16 has changed due to the normal aging process.

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