With spring break just around the corner, students like Baines are scrambling to acquire U.S. passports in order to legally fly to certain destinations, thanks to a new law called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.
Since Jan. 23, U.S. citizens have been required to provide a valid passport when flying to Mexico, Canada, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda. According to the federal government, the passports are now required because of conditions in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. The goal: tighter border security.
If you're planning on driving to Mexico, and you don't have a passport, you're fine this spring break--but you may want to consider getting your passport anyway. As it stands now, Americans will need a passport to enter Mexico and all of the aforementioned countries by land or sea on Jan. 1, 2008, although there are some indications that deadline could be extended.
With the establishment of this new law, the number of passport applications has greatly increased.
"Someone I'm traveling with told me that the law had changed, and I should double-check, because I never had a passport," said Baines. "I've only driven across the border before."
Baines was one of the students who rushed to apply for a U.S. passport; the cruise company required that she have one, even though the law change technically did not affect her.
Baines applied for a passport as soon as possible, knowing that the routine turnaround time for passport processing is six to eight weeks. But she was too late, and Baines had to pay extra to expedite her passport.
"I was worried when I initially found out, because spring break was in less than six weeks," said Baines.
Many people go to copying and paper facilities like FedEx/Kinko's to get their passport application taken care of, thinking that's all they need to do. But FedEx/Kinko's can only sell customers seeking passports a set of photos necessary for their applications; the federal government does the actual processing.
"We've been getting a lot of people coming in for passport pictures," said Kelly Olson, a FedEx/Kinko's employee at the Speedway Boulevard location near the UA. "We get groups of four or five frat guys that are like 'Yo, we need passports, bro.'''
U.S. passport applications need to be processed at one of more than 8,000 locations across the United States; the U.S. State Department Web site lists 11 in Tucson.
Kathleen Goggin, a spokesperson for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, says an estimated 28 percent of the eligible U.S. population has passports. A few months before the travel initiative was implemented, the number of passport applications started to skyrocket.
"In November of 2006, which is typically our slowest month, there were 1.1 million passports issued," said Goggin. "That's a 67 percent increase over 2005."
UA student Jonathan Kielmeyer is driving to Rocky Point this spring break and is therefore not affected by the new travel initiative. But Kielmeyer had not even heard of the new travel initiative and worries that students traveling by air are unaware of it, too.
"I have friends flying to places in Mexico, and they haven't even mentioned needing a passport," said Kielmeyer.
NEED A PASSPORT?
• New passports for people age 16 and older: The fee is $97 ($67 application fee plus $30 execution fee)
• New passports for people younger than 16: The fee is $82 ($52 application fee plus $30 execution fee)
• Expedited service fee: $60
• Passport renewal fee: $67
• For more information and to find the closest passport acceptance facility (11 are listed in Tucson), visit travel.state.gov, or call the U.S. National Passport Information Center: (877) 4USA-PPT.