Tip & Tricks: Get a passport card

Welcome back! I’m beginning a new series at The Prepared Expat where I’m going to deliver an actionable tip that will help you thrive and survive as an expat. The tips and tricks are born from living most of my adult life as an expat–often from mistakes I’ve made!–with a focus on being practical. So let’s dive in!

Today’s tip is: get a US passport card, not just a US passport book for you and your family1. If you trust me enough to take my advice, don’t read “why”–just learn how to apply. For everyone else, read on:

What a passport card is–and why you should get one

If you’re not familiar with the $30 passport cards, you can read more at the US State Department’s site, but the basic difference is that a passport card can only be used at US land/sea borders from countries bordering the US2 whereas the passport book can be used worldwide and for international air travel.

If the passport card can only be used in a few situations, why would you want to get one? I’m glad you asked–here’s six reasons why you should get one:

1. A passport card is official US government ID

A passport book is official ID too, but an expat often has times when you don’t have a passport book and yet still need to prove your ID. This happened to me just this morning; my passport book is with my host country to renew my visa, but my bank froze my account and needed to see my ID in order to unfreeze it. This could have been disastrous, as it was my main bank, but it was easy to use my passport card to prove my identity.

In addition, if your passport book were lost or stolen, a passport card will make it much easier to enter a US embassy, prove your identity, and replace your passport book than showing up without any ID. It’s a great backup to have for just $30.

2. A passport card doesn’t have an address on it or visas in it

As an expat, maintaining a US address can be cumbersome and often your mailing address won’t match your address on your driver’s license. That’s the case for me right now; my driver’s license is from one state, but my mailing address is in a different state. Banks have given me trouble if I use my driver’s license for ID since its address doesn’t match what they have on file, but a passport card has no address on it to create confusion.

Not only does it prevent confusion, but it’s also an easy way to protect your privacy (or the privacy of the friend/family member whose address is on your license) because you won’t exposes that address. Further, since a passport card doesn’t contain visas or entry/exit stamps, there’s less for a US customs agent to become quizzical or suspicious about when you present it for entry.

3. A passport card is valid for 10 years and is easily renewed

Most expats use their driver’s license as a backup form of ID, and that’s great–but driver’s licenses often have to be renewed every 5 years, are difficult or impossible to renew while overseas and, even when they can be renewed, don’t ship internationally. Passport cards, though, are easily applied for and renewed through US embassies worldwide. Further, a passport card is valid for a long time (10 years for adults, 5 for children under 16) which beats most driver’s licenses. It’s a superior way to get a backup ID.

4. A passport card reduces your risk

Let’s say you need to ship an ID internationally–I’ll give you a scenario for that in a second–you definitely don’t want to ship your passport book. Even if it doesn’t get lost in the mail–entailing the arduous task of replacing it and your visas–it’s quite dangerous (and usually illegal) to be without a passport in a foreign country. But having a passport card means you can keep your passport book with you, yet still mail your ID.

Why would you need to ship off ID? There’s a variety of possible scenarios, but I’ve twice needed to do this when applying for social security numbers for my children born overseas. The Federal Benefits Unit requires that I mail in my and my son’s passport as proof of identity, but I don’t dare do that. I could take a trip to the US embassy and make certified copies of our passports, but that requires a 3+ hour plane trip, possibly an overnight stay, and is just a hassle. Instead, I send in my and my son’s passport cards. I kept my passport books with me and, if they had been lost in the mail, I’d only be out $60. That’s far cheaper than plane tickets to get certified copies made.

Another way a card reduces your risk is because it’s smaller and more concealable than a passport book, plus doesn’t contain any visas in it. So if you ever go on a Caribbean cruise, for example, you’ll need to take a passport and I’d recommend taking your passport card. If its lost or stolen, you won’t have to replace any active visas in your passport book (which can be a pain in the neck); plus a passport card is smaller and more concealable, so it’s less likely to be stolen in the first place! Win-win.

5. A passport card provides safety in a crazy scenarios

For most of us, these scenarios are unrealistic, but they have happened and a $30 card protects you from them. There was a man, who shall rename nameless, who was traveling in an unnamed South America country. The police in this country are notoriously corrupt and targeted him as a foreigner for a bribe. They stopped him on a trumped-up charge and seized his passport book; they said that to get his passport back, he had 24 hours to pay an exorbitant “fine” or else he’d be jailed for 6 months.

Fortunately, he had a passport card; he chartered a boat and was able to flee the South American country and arrive safely at a US land border, where his card gave him entry. The corrupt police thought that seizing his passport was enough leverage to make him pay the bogus “fine”, but his passport card got him out of the sticky situation.

Now, most of us won’t be in a situation like that, but a simple passport card gives you redundancy so that, if you were in a crazy scenario that required chartering a boat to the US, you could keep your family safe. At $30, it’s one of the cheapest insurance policies you can get.

How to get a passport card

Follow the directions on the US State Department website; the process is almost identical to getting a passport book and can be done at the same time if you’re applying for a passport book.

If you’re already overseas, then you typically have three options: 1) mail in an application, if your US embassy supports that, 2) apply at the US embassy, 3) apply at a “town hall” event that US embassies sometimes put on in non-embassy locations.

If you already have to visit a US embassy or apply for a passport already, then it’s a no-brainer to get the passport card at the same time. If not, you’ll have to decide if a passport card is worth an extra trip–but there’s five good reasons above to get a card at some point.

Want more tips like this?

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Footnotes:
1. I’m aware this tip is relevant only for US citizens; most future tips aren’t US-specific, but since I’m a US citizen (and much of my audience is), I’ll share tips even if they’re not universally relevant. But if you’re not a US citizen, check out to see if your government offers an equivalent card; it’s not unusual and likely has many of the same benefits as the US passport card.

2. Specifically: Canada, Mexico, Caribbean countries, & Bermuda. See more at the State Department site.

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