Passport: Exactly what is a Passport. A Passport is simply an internationally (by treaty) recognized form of identification that establishes your identity and country of citizenship. By itself, it is not a document allowing you to visit another country, but rather ensures your re-entry into the US as a US citizen.
Types of Cruises: Whether a Passport is required, even in the Caribbean depends on your cruise. To determine what is required, you must know whether your crusie is a "Closed Loop", "Open Loop", or "Foreign Loop" cruise.
Closed loop cruises: Closed loop cruises originate and terminate in the SAME US Port. A cruise that leaves Ft. Lauderdale, Fl; visits several Caribbean ports, then returns to Ft. Lauderdale is a Closed Loop cruise. For US citizens, you do not need a passport for a closed loop cruise. A government issued photo ID (driver's license) and a government certified copy of your birth certificate is sufficient for re-entry into the US.
Open Loop cruises: Open loop cruises originate and terminate in a DIFFERENT Port; either in the US, or foreign country. A cruise that leaves Ft. Lauderdale, Fl; goes through the Panama Canal, and ends in San Diego, Ca is an Open Loop cruise. A PAssport is required for this type of cruise, as the originating and destination ports are different. A driver's license and birth certificate are not sufficient.
Foreign Loop cruise: Any cruise that originates or terminates in a Foreign port is a Foreign Loop cruise and requires a Passport.
Passports are highly recommended even for closed loop cruises. While a driver's license and birth certificate is sufficient for a cruise, they are not sufficient for air transportation. Therefore, if you become stranded on an island; say, the ship leaves without you (it has happened), you will need a Passport to fly to the next port or return to the US. For that reason, a Passport is highly recommended anytime you leave the US, whether or not it is actually required. Leaving the US without a passport - especially to an island where the only alternative way home is via air travel.
Passport Card and Enhanced Driver's License: Generally are not worth much, as they can only be used in leiu of a driver's license and birth certificate. They cannot be used for air travel.
A passport, for the first time applicant, is around $80. But it is valid for 10 years. So for a cost of $8 per year, is it worth it to leave home without one? If you are spending thousands on a cruise, it is just prudent to spend a few dollars and obtain a Passport.
How do I obtain a Passport? All full service US Post Offices can process your application for a Passport. You can apply for the passport by bringing two copies of a Passport-approved photo, your your government issued birth certificate and the application fee with you to the Post Office. They will help you proccess the Passport application and forward it to the State Department. You will have to attach your birth certificate to your application, but it will be returned to you when your Passport is issued.
For this service, the Post Office does charge a few dollars, but they will handle everything for you. The Post Office generally does not have the ability to take a photo, but many local businesses, such as CVS, WalGreens and the Photo Department at your local Sears do have this capability. The fee for these photos are usually less than $10.
Allow at least 8 weeks for processing of the Passport, so don't wait until the last minute before applying. You can apply for an expedited Passport, but you pay a premium fee for that. There are several on-line passport application websites you can use, but pay attention to the fee they charge. Using the US Post Office will probably be the least expensive option.
Age requirements: For infants and young children, the Passport requirements are relaxed somewhat. Be sure to visit the US State Department's Passport website for the current requirements for younger children.
Safeguarding your Passport: One area of disagreement among seasoned cruise passengers is whether or not to take your Passport with you when you leave the ship. Proponents of such a decision claim that if you are robbed or lose your passport, you will not have it when you return to the US, so they keep their Passports safely locked in their cabin. Oponnents of this action state that if you miss your ship - whether you do not return on time, or are involved in an accident or other medical issue - you will need the passport with you, not on the ship that is no longer in the area.
While there are some points I suppose to both approaches, my feeling is that you should ALWAYS take your passport with you when you leave the ship. You are in a foreign country afterall, so you don't want to be stuck on an island for several days while trying to obtain a replacement. Proponents argue that the ship will retrieve your passport and forward the Passport to you - but how many days will that take? Afterall, they are no longer in the immediate area.
So we always keep our passports with us. However, as a safety measure, we also bring our birth certificates and leave them in our cabin. If we should lose our passports, we can still return to the US with the birth certificate.
Ask yourself this question. Would you rather be stranded on an island trying to obtain a replacement Passport, or be stranded in US Customs after returning to the US without a Passport. I think I would rather at least be in the US - even if I am detained during the replacement process. And, you may even be able to get a replacement Passport on your way back to the US as there is typically a day at sea upon your return.
Passports are also more easily replaced if you have the Passport number. Many passengers either photocopy their Passports for this very reason, or digitize it and keep it on their iPhone, kindle, or other device, as many of these devices can save documents (however, password protect any such document you keep on that device).
What is a VISA? While a Passport establishes your identity and citizenship, a VISA is permission for you to enter the country. If you are a US citizen, a VISA is not usually required for entry into a country in the Caribbean. However, foreign citizens, except for Canadian's may need a VISA. Europeans; especially from former Eastern-Block countries may need a VISA.
Certain countries in South America - such as Brazil requires VISAs for US citizens as well. If in doubt, check with your Travel Agent, or research the official government website of the countries you wish to visit.
Even though US citizens may not need a VISA in the Caribbean, there are often restrictions. The length of time you can stay in the country is likely restricted; 2 weeks to a month for vacationers, or requring evidence of a round-trip airline ticket or other similar requirements. Obvously, a visit from a cruise ship would meet those conditions.
Like all government documentation, if you require a VISA for your cruise, allow plenty of time for processing the application. You will be requesting the VISA from the foreign government, not from the US.
Whether a Passport, Visa, or other documentation is required, each traveler is responsible for obtaining the correct documents. If you do not posess those documents, you may be denied boarding on the day of the cruise.
Other Documents: When traveling with children, either friends of your children that are going with you, or if you are divorced and share joint custody, a permission slip from the parents may be required. At minimum, being proactive in this area is prudent, as it is better to have such permission and not need it rather than not having it when required. Cruise lines are fairly pro-active on spousal kidnapping issues, so they may deny boarding if you do not have permission of both parents.
There is no specific form for a permission slip, so simply create your own, with the following minimum items:
Recommended Sample Permssion Form:
Applying for a Passport (US State Department)
DS-11 Passport Application Form
Lost or Stolen Passport