The rules for when you need a passport to go on a cruise and when you don't are not as straightforward as you would think. You'll definitely need one if you are flying internationally to start the cruise — say, to Barcelona to sail the Mediterranean. But the requirements get a little murky if you are sailing within the U.S. or down to the Caribbean and Mexico. It's smart to check with your cruise line for passport and visa requirements for your specific itinerary, but here are the guidelines that you need to know.
When is a passport not necessary?
If you are taking a so-called "closed-loop" cruise (which departs from and returns to the same U.S. city), you will not need a passport. But you'll have to bring proof of citizenship (such as your state-issued birth certificate) as well as a goverment-issued photo ID like a driver's license for those age 16 or older. If you're taking an inter-island cruise in Hawaii, you'll only need a government-issued photo ID.
Can I get away with just a passport card?
Passport cards can be used instead of a passport to go on a cruise if you are re-entering the U.S. by land or sea from Canada, Mexico, or Bermuda as well as most islands in the Caribbean. Not familiar with passport cards? They are a credit-card sized document that costs less than a passport ($55 versus $135). You can't use it when flying outside the U.S., though, and some Caribbean islands still require you to have a passport to go ashore.
Where do I need a regular passport in the Caribbean?
Even if you're on a closed-loop cruise or have a passport card, you'll need a regular passport to go ashore in Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti, Cuba, and the French West Indies.
Should I still bring my passport, just in case?
If you are entering international waters at any point, it's smart to bring your passport on a cruise no matter what. If you miss your ship at a port, have a medical emergency, or the ship is diverted for some reason, you may need to disembark on non-U.S. soil or in a different U.S. city than where you embarked — or fly home. In that case, you would need a passport to re-enter the U.S. While it's possible to get an emergency passport, it can take several days.