Passport Book vs. Card – Which is Better for a Cruise?

Passport Book vs. Passport Card: We break down the differences and explain which is the better option for a cruise.

Passport Book vs. Card - Which is Better for a Cruise?

Some of us remember when crossing to Canada involved a simple answer to the question about where you were born. And flying to join a cruise leaving from the Caribbean or Mexico was no problem. (Remember that the USVI and Puerto Rico are US territories.)

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, things slowly began to change. In the beginning, it was just air travel outside of the USA that required travel documents verifying citizenship. In 2009, the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) started requiring those traveling from anywhere in the Western Hemisphere to have a passport to enter the USA.

That initiative began the process of adding more restrictions for traveling between the USA and Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean. It’s still possible to travel to those aforementioned spots entering via land or seaport without a passport book. But now, arriving by air to any of the countries mentioned above requires a passport book as do all other international destinations.

Best Time to Take a Caribbean Cruise - Passport Book vs. Card - Which is Better for a Cruise?

In 2004, there were only 8,825,410 passports issued. That number grew to 18,382,798 in 2007. Passport cards became an option in 2008, with just 189,560 citizens opting for that choice.

By 2023, the number of passports issued in the USA grew to 24,021,257, which includes 3,559,364 passport cards. These numbers from the US State Department indicate that travelers vastly prefer the passport book vs. the passport card.

Passport Book vs. Card – Which is Better for a Cruise?

From simply looking at the numbers above, you might wonder why fewer people applied for a passport card rather than a passport book. This is because the passport card restricts how and where you can travel. For some, even with restrictions, it could be the perfect solution. The choice is entirely up to you. You’ll just need to think about where you are traveling and how you are traveling.

Will you be flying to visit friends or family in Mexico, Canada, Bermuda, or the Caribbean? Or, do you plan to drive to Mexico or Canada? The answer to those questions will help you make your choice.

So, where does this leave cruisers? As long as a guest departs from a US port, they may travel with just a passport card. Think of the passport card as offering the same possibilities as the pre-2009 restrictions. Or, in some instances, only a birth certificate and government issued ID are needed to cruise.

However, there is a caveat. Certain Caribbean Islands do require a passport to enter, even if entering by sea. Those to remember include Barbados, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Martinique, St. Barts, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Passport Book vs. Card - Which is Better for a Cruise?

Thus, in simplest terms, the passport card takes away the possibility of air travel to any place outside of the United States. It also takes away the possibility of cruising on a closed-loop cruise to any of the Caribbean islands that still require the actual passport book.

If you are traveling abroad by land or sea, the passport book is the best. Keep reading to see why we always recommend traveling with one.

Differences Between the Passport Book and Passport Card

 Passport BookPassport CardPassport Book and Card
Application Fee (16 and over)$130$30$160
Validity (16 years +)10 years10 years10 years
Application Fee (15 and under)$100$15$115
Validity (15 years and under)5 years5 years5 years
Execution Fee$35$35$35
Travel OptionsMost EverywhereLand and Sea Travel from US 
AppearanceBook with multiple pagesCredit Card Size 

Benefits of a Passport Book vs Card

As previously mentioned, the benefits of the passport book vs. the passport card depends on where you want to travel and your method of arrival. Be sure to review and take note of where you can go with your passport card.

The limitations of arriving by land or sea certainly restricts the usage of the passport card. On the other hand, the passport book allows you to travel to almost anywhere via any mode of transportation.

While the passport card is less expensive than the book, it does have its limitations, hence the lower cost.

Another big difference between the passport book and passport card is the size. It’s easy to stick the passport card into a wallet or pocket. The passport book requires more space and is considerably more valuable and useful if it gets stolen. Keep it protected while traveling.

What Should I Do With My Passport on a Cruise?

Given its small size, it might be easier to pay the small fee for the passport card rather than hassle with having to carry around a birth certificate and marriage license to board a ship for a closed loop cruise.

For cruisers who live in a state that borders the US or Canada, driving to the embarkation port is an option as well. For example, a Californian with a passport card could drive to Acapulco to start a cruise. Likewise, a New York resident could drive to Montreal to board a ship. Of course, they would have to do a closed loop cruise to be able to return to the US using just the passport card.

Pros of Passport Card:

  • Less expensive
  • Smaller Size

Pros of Passport Book:

  • Allows for travel almost anywhere in the world
  • Allows for travel by any mode of transportation

Of course, some travelers do purchase both the book and the card to have the best of both worlds.

When Do You Need the Passport Book Over the Passport Card?

Scenerio One:

Let’s imagine that the Californians decide to drive their VW van down the Baja Peninsula and explore along the way before joining their adventure cruise in La Paz. After having a great time exploring, they finally reach Cabo San Lucas where they spend a few days. As they head toward La Paz, their engine blows a gasket.

cruise ports in Mexico

They know that there are great mechanics in Mexico, but to rebuild the engine, they have to wait two weeks for the parts. This would not have been a problem at any other time, but their favorite niece is getting married a few days after they had planned to arrive back home.

The Californians decided to enjoy their week long cruise in the Sea of Cortez and hope that their van will be ready when the cruise ends so that they can make a mad dash back to California. They considered perhaps simply flying out of La Paz and then flying back to Mexico after the wedding if the van wasn’t repaired in time. However, without a passport book, this is not possible. Now, the Californians have no alternative but to miss the wedding of their beloved niece.

Scenario Two:

A family with two kids flies to Puerto Rico to board their closed loop cruise. Knowing that Puerto Rico is a US port, they are happy that they only needed to buy passport cards for the entire family. That saved them a lot of money. They were also relieved that they would just need their passport cards and not have to worry about carrying around their birth certificates.

Their cruise did not include any of the Caribbean islands that required a passport. So, they knew that their cards would be easy and convenient. The family had saved for years to take this once-in-a-lifetime trip to dive in Bonaire.

Best Things to Do in Bonaire on a Cruise in 2020

When they returned from their dive expedition, they scanned back onboard the ship and security advised them to go to guest services immediately.

They were shocked to hear that their very healthy grandfather had a heart attack and they needed to get home as soon as possible. The only problem is that they can’t fly out from Bonaire with just the passport cards.

In both of the above cases, the cruisers could have made it back home had they had a passport book rather than the passport card. Although they saved money in the short term, they missed important events in their lives.

Cruise Line & Travel Advisor Recommendations

While not required for cruises that begin and end in a US port (closed loop), cruise lines and travel advisors still recommend guests travel with a passport. As do we!

NCL recently sent a notice to travel advisors recommending that their cruise clients get passport books.

Cruising on Norwegian

Quoting from the NCL letter sent to guests and travel advisors:

“1. Guests who miss all-aboard time in a Mexican port, and wish to re-join the ship in the next Mexican port, will be required to present a passport. In addition, the guest will be required to pay a visa fee, a possible fine, as well as cover the cost of transportation to the following port. Furthermore, if the guest fails to present a passport, the guest must obtain permission from the immigration department to travel to the next port of call without a passport.

2. Guests who miss all-aboard time at the ship’s scheduled US departure port and need to travel outside the US to embark the ship at the next scheduled port of call, will be required to present a passport to leave and/or re-enter the US by air.

3. Guess who unexpectedly need to disembark the ship from a foreign port prior to the end of sailing as a result of an emergency will be required to present a passport to leave and/or re-enter the US by air.

4. Guests who unexpectedly need to disembark the ship prior to the end of sailing are required to advise the ship and complete the immigration/disembarkation process in order to disembark the vessel.  A valid passport is required in order to complete the immigration/ disembarkation process.”

Reading between the lines, the message is to get a passport!

Because of the possibilities of any of the above happening, many travel advisors also recommend that guests have passports. Without proof of a passport, cruisers may even find that travel advisors refuse to work with them.

Do you need a passport to go on a cruise? Passport Book vs. Card - Which is Better for a Cruise?

Tips For Getting a Passport Book or Passport Card

  • Leave plenty of time to apply or renew your document.
  • If you travel a lot, you may want to get a passport with extra pages. The New Generation Passport Book has 26 pages in the standard size and 50 in the extended size.
  • Keep in mind that some countries require that your passport be valid for six months beyond your last day of travel. The State Department recommends starting the renewal process nine months prior to the expiration date.
  • Don’t wait until the last minute to check the expiration dates of your passport or card.
  • If you need to expedite your passport or card, you will pay not only an expedition fee of $60, but also fees for overnight mail to and from the acceptance facility.
  • In the case of an emergency, you may request Congressional assistance. It could still take up to three days to process.
  • If there is a life or death emergency, guaranteed same day processing is offered. However, the emergency must involve immediate family.
  • Having the proper documentation for cruising is always the responsibility of the guest. Do check with the cruise line or your travel advisor about the possibilty of needing a visa. Also check the state department website and the websites of the countries that you are visiting to confirm what you will need.

Final Thoughts

A passport may seem like a big expense, and the output can be high especially for families. But consider the cost of getting stuck in a foreign country without a passport. At $160 for ten years, a passport is a bargain. Think of all the benefits of something that costs just less than $2 per month.

Consider a passport just like any other cost of cruise travel, such as insurance and gratuities. Who needs the stress? With a passport book in hand, the world really is your oyster. Can you imagine having to turn down the opportunity to visit an exotic destination with a friend who just won a vacation prize?


What are your thoughts on a passport book vs. card for a cruise? Which do you travel with? Drop us an anchor below to share your thoughts.

Theresa reluctantly set foot on a ship sailing French Polynesia many years ago. The rest is history. She now thrives on visiting new places, learning about a destination and meeting the locals. Taking her hotel room along for the ride, Theresa continues exploring the world by sea. She hopes to get to her 7th continent soon!
Theresa Russell, Contributor
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Passport Book vs. Card – Which is Better for a Cruise?

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