UPDATE: Since this article was published in mid September, Congress passed a one year exntension of the passport requirements for travelers land crossing borders with Mexico and Canada. If you are crossing by land, you will need a passport beginning Jan1, 2009, one year later than originally proposed. - ED
Sure, just about every U.S. traveler has heard the news about new passport requirements going into effect January 8 next year. But not only is there still confusion over the issue, time is running out if you're planning a Caribbean cruise this winter and haven't yet applied to the Passport office for your credentials.

New regulations, scheduled to take effect Jan. 8, 2007, require passports for air and sea travel to and from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda. U.S. citizens now only have to show a driver's license and birth certificate to travel in the Western hemisphere. Otherwise, officials warn, you won't be getting on that plane or cruise ship as planned.

If you haven't applied for a U.S. Passport yet and are planning travel after the first of the year, you should start the process just as soon as possible. There may be a rush at the very end...
U.S. Passport Official
New federal laws that are part of the U.S. Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 require it. The laws were designed to strengthen border security and facilitate entry into the United States for U.S. citizens and legitimate foreign visitors.

The new laws require U.S. citizens to be in possession of a legal passport beginning Jan 1, 2007, if they are traveling by air, sea or other form of public transportation. Border crossers (foot traffic and traffic in private automobiles) using land crossings into Mexico and Canada won't need a passport unitl Jan1, 2009.

While the measure has been criticized by some as a deterrent to the travel industry, most industry experts say they expect U.S. travelers will adjust to the new requirements without too many problems. But as the deadline draws near, they warn, the process time required to issue passport credentials may increase, causing some not to have their passports in possession until after the first of the year.

"I wouldn't wait any longer if I was planning a trip in January. The application process is running about normal right now, but there has been an increased number of applications and that will probably increase as the deadline approaches," reports a postal employee in Houston, who says applications have increased at his branch by as much as 50% in recent weeks.

Getting a passport is relatively simple.

Applications are available from the post office or can be downloaded from the U.S. State Departmentís Web site at www.travel.state.gov.

Applicants need their birth certificates and two 2x2 photos showing their full face on a white background. Passport photos are available at many places, such as a professional photograph service. Many post offices offer passport photo services as well.

Passport fees for people 16 and older is $97 and $82 for those under 16.

For applications for children age 14 and under (who go through the postal service to get their passports), both parents must appear, and if one parent cannot make it, that parent needs to provide a notarized statement indicating their approval for their child to apply for a passport.

Turn around times from application to receipt of the new passport currently runs 3-9 weeks. The Passport Service does offer an expedited service for an additional fee. Even so, the process should be started as soon as possible in order to avoid the rush.