Americans can, of course, travel within the U.S. and its territories without a passport. There are also a few out-of-country locations that U.S. citizens can visit with only a valid driver's license and certified birth certificate, but only when traveling via cruise ships that depart and arrive at the same port. Passports are required for all out-of-country air travel.
The U.S. has five inhabited territories. American citizens can visit any of the territories without having a passport as long as they do not also travel to other countries during the same trip.
Located in the South Pacific, American Samoa consists of seven islands. It is a wonderful destination for eco-tourism, as it is a breathtakingly beautiful island paradise that has not been overdeveloped. You won't find five-star resorts here or tourist trap type activities. Instead, you'll find relaxation and natural beauty, from mountains to lagoons, coral reefs, and more. Be sure to explore the National Park of American Samoa when you travel here.
Guam is a western Pacific island that has a tourist center (Tumon) filled with what you'd expect to find in any popular travel destination - lots of shopping, a wide variety of dining, accommodations ranging from luxurious to more budget friendly, attractions, and popular beaches. When you venture outside of Tumon, though, you'll get to see the island's unique natural beauty, including its rugged coastline and secluded beaches.
Norther Mariana Islands
Just to the north and east of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands are lovely destinations in the Philipine Sea. The island chain consists of 15 small islands. The most popular tourist islands are Saipan, Tinian, and Rota. Popular activities include scuba diving a shipwreck from World War II, exploring historical structures, taking in the local culture and (of course!) beachgoing. There are also casinos on the islands.
While Puerto Rico is still recovering from Hurricane Maria as of this writing (July 2018), the territory is open for business and welcoming of tourists. You can get details on which resorts are open and when others are scheduled to reopen via the Islands of Puerto Rico website. The scenery there is spectacular, ranging from the expected beaches to lush jungles and even caves.
U.S. Virgin Islands
St. John, St. Croix and St. Thomas make up the U.S. Virgin Islands. These lovely islands have long been popular tourist destinations for travelers who want to relax on an island paradise. Activities range from water-based options and beachgoing to hiking the rainforest, going horseback riding, golfing, and more. There are plenty of organized tours to choose among, though you can also explore on your own.
Western Hemisphere Cruises
If you are a U.S. citizen and take a "closed-loop" cruise (one with the same departure and arrival port) to a non-U.S. destination for which all ports are in the western hemisphere, a driver's license and certified birth certificate are sufficient for you to gain entry to the U.S. upon your return. However, you should be aware that some countries you may visit during your cruise could require you to present a passport. Check with your cruise line or travel agent to verify the exact documents you need to fully enjoy your vacation.
Popular Cruise Spots
Bermuda is an example of a closed-loop cruise destination where you can travel without a passport, as are the destinations in many Caribbean cruises. Popular ports of call for Western Caribbean cruises include:
- Cayman Islands
- St. Lucia
What to Do
When you cruise to these areas, you'll spend the majority of your time at sea, with a few hours in port during which you can explore the area on land. While you can explore on your own, cruise passengers usually choose among pre-set excursions. Typical excursions at these destinations include enjoying the water via various types of boat trips and touring local landmarks. You can, of course, also simply opt to enjoy the beach and take in some sun during your time off the ship. If you want to spend more time in any of these areas, you'll need to get a passport and travel there by air or land (where possible).
There are a few Caribbean destinations that do not allow cruisers without a passport, even those arriving via a closed-loop cruise. If you plan to cruise without a passport, avoid booking cruises with stops in Barbados, Guadeloupe, Haiti (unless you are on a Royal Caribbean cruise stopping at the cruise line's private island on Haiti [Labadee]), Martinique, St. Bart's, St. Martin, and Trinidad and Tobago. This may not be an inclusive list, as travel requirements can change at any time. Always verify requirements with your cruise line or travel professional.
Please note that if you get ill in a foreign port of call and don't have a passport, you could find it impossible to fly back to the U.S. for medical care. So, even though there are places you can cruise to without a passport, doing so is not without risk.
Enhanced Driver's Licenses
If you live in a state that offers Enhanced Drivers Licenses, then you can get a special kind of driver's licence that provides proof of both identity and citizenship. With it, you can travel to and from Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean by land. It will also work on a cruise ship that travels to these areas in lieu of a certified birth certificate paired with a regular drivers license. However, this document is not acceptable for air travel.
In-Country Special Circumstance: Alaska
While U.S. citizens can travel within the United States without a passport, land travel to Alaska poses a special circumstance. If you travel from the mainland to Alaska by land, you will have to pass through Canada in order to get there. Therefore, you will need to have a passport or enhanced Driver's License in order to get to your destination. This does not apply to air travel to Alaska, as you can fly directly to the state without landing in Canada.
Passport-Free Travel for Americans
Depending on your age, you may recall having been able to freely travel to Mexico and Canada without a passport, but those days are gone. While there are a few exceptions for children who are U.S. citizens traveling to or from Mexico or Canada by land or sea in certain situations, passports are necessary for most international travel. They are required for all out-of-country air travel and land travel, as well as any sea travel other than closed loop cruises that don't leave the western hemisphere. If you want to visit an exotic destination, schedule a trip to one of the U.S. territories or book a qualifying closed-loop cruise.