Your valid passport may not get you where you want to go. Here’s why.
Travel is ramping up again. But if you’re hoping to travel internationally later this year, you should take a look at your passport. If it’s close to expiring, you may already have a problem.
That is because countries and airlines have strict passport-expiration rules. To be safe, your passport needs to be valid for at least six months after the start of your trip. It is something too many people don’t realize until it’s too late.
When Ted Kelley and his wife, Suzanne, tried to board a Lufthansa flight in Boston for their 50th wedding anniversary trip to Italy (pre-pandemic), an airline representative turned the couple away at the ticket counter. The reason? To enter Italy, you need at least 90 days of validity on your passport, even if you plan to return before that time. Suzanne’s expired before then.
“The Lufthansa employee said we could rebook for the next day,” says Kelley, a retired human resources executive from North Attleboro, Mass., so he hurried to the passport office in Boston and paid for an emergency renewal. The couple flew to Florence the following day, but the airline charged an extra $17,766 for their business class seats. It was an expensive mistake.
And, it turns out, a surprisingly common one.
Sally Greenberg was caught off-guard when her spouse was not allowed to board a flight they had booked from D.C., to Copenhagen last year.
“She had to leave Dulles Airport, get a taxi home, go to Kinko’s, get a new passport picture that night, and then wake up in the morning and get in line at the emergency passport office near the State Department with many, many other people,” Greenberg recalls. The airline, SAS, charged an extra $850 to change the flights.
“I asked my staff, and 80 percent of people said they had no idea you needed a passport with at least six months validity before traveling,” says Greenberg, the executive director of the National Consumers League, a nonprofit organization. “Consumers need to be sure to check their passports.”
Passport validity requirements exist because countries do not want visitors to overstay their visas. And airlines, wary of violating a country’s entry requirements, are playing it extra safe. But to travelers, the rules can seem arbitrary and unfair.
Here is how Jonathan Goldman, an IT director from Annandale, Va., sees it. He pays the State Department $145 for a new passport, which lasts 10 years. But some countries require a minimum validity of six months. That means he does not get a full 10 years of use out of his passport, something he says the State Department should rectify.
The problem is that the State Department does not set the passport validity requirements of other countries.
To avoid an unwelcome and costly disruption to your travel plans, you can find passport information on the State Department’s website or run your itinerary through the International Air Transport Association’s free document checker to verify your documentation requirements.
Some popular countries, including Italy, have a three-month rule, but many require a minimum of six. That includes most of the Caribbean, European countries such as France and Germany, and most Asian countries.
What would happen if the ticket agent waves you onto the plane, anyway? Maybe nothing.
I failed to check the expiration date on my son’s passport before a one-month trip to France and Germany a few years ago. It had about five months left on it. I didn’t spot the problem until the day before our trip. It was a day’s drive to the closest passport office, so I decided to take a chance. No one noticed the discrepancy, fortunately. But I wouldn’t recommend this approach.
Consider the experience of Nicole Sunderland, who found herself in a similar situation in January 2020. She showed up for a flight to Turkey with 5 months and 29 days left on her passport, missing the cutoff by just one day.
“I was told by multiple people, including the tour provider, that it would be okay,” says Sunderland, a travel photographer. “I arrived in Turkey, and suddenly, it was not okay.”
Although immigration agents allowed her to enter the country, she had to show proof, several times, that she had booked a return trip and felt “hassled” at every turn. Still, she adds, Turkey was one of her favorite destinations, and she will return — with a passport that meets requirements.
Domenic Savaglio says some ticket and customs agents ignore the six-month rule, which explains how my son got into France. But if you are applying for a visa, expiration rules are more strictly enforced.
“Travelers should renew their passport six to eight months before it expires to avoid this problem,” says Savaglio, who writes a blog about passports and visas called Citizen of Travel. “Don’t risk being held up in customs or denied entry to your destination country. Customs enforcement around the world reserves the right to do that if they see fit.”
It is not just the destination country’s requirements you have to worry about. Airlines have passport expiration rules of their own, as Anita Tolani discovered. Tolani, a lawyer from Bethesda, Md., tried to board a flight from the D.C. area to Nassau, Bahamas, for a 2017 family vacation.
“The gate agent would not allow my daughter to travel,” she recalls. Although the Bahamas’ rules are clear — the island nation requires only that a passport be valid at the time of entry — American requires six months of passport validity for international flights, no matter where you are going. The pair had to stay home.
Eventually, American issued Tolani credits for the value of the flights, plus two $200 vouchers to make up for the missed vacation.
Greenberg, the consumer advocate, says airlines should notify passengers about passport validity requirements when they book tickets.
“They shouldn’t sell you the ticket if [the passport] doesn’t meet the six-month test,” she says. “I hate to be cynical, but I gotta believe that the airlines are using this as another opportunity to rake in some extra bucks.”
If you are traveling internationally, I suggest that you make sure your passport will not need to be renewed for six months, even if you don’t think your destination has such a requirement. Want to play it safe? Make it eight.
Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more from Travel: Read past Navigator columns here