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Their traditional passport book has expired. The consulate here is not giving me a solid reason why I need a more costly passport book. The Consulate says that passport cards are used by people crossing borders regularly from Canada or Mexico to the USA. Is this true? Can’t my children re-enter the USA with a passport card? They are American minors under the age of 13.

  • Where are you travelling from? – jcaron May 14 at 15:39
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    @jcaron the other issue is that the US explicitly does not authorize its citizens to use them for international air travel, as covered in mkennedy's answer. Other countries could unilaterally decide to recognize the card as valid ID for US citizens in the country, but that won't change the fact that no airline will board a passenger for an international flight to the US with (only) a passport card. – phoog May 14 at 15:50
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    No airline will let you on a US bound plane with just a passport card. You can potentially get in the country, but you won't be able to go on the plane in the first place – Hilmar May 14 at 16:46
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    The US passport card can't be used for air travel, in part because it doesn't meet the ICAO standards for passport cards. This is why I chose not to get one until the US issues ICAO-compliant passport cards and they become usable for air travel. – Michael Hampton May 14 at 19:00
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    Americans can re-enter the USA, always, full stop. But boarding a private company's plane is at the owner's discretion. – Mazura May 15 at 0:33
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The consulate here is not giving me a solid reason why I need a more costly passport book.

The relevant federal regulation is found at 8 CFR 235.1. It starts by saying that everyone needs a passport unless they qualify for one of several exceptions, found both in that part and at 22 CFR 53.2. In addition to the exception for a passport card, there are exceptions applying to children under 19 or 16, depending upon the circumstances. However, all of these exceptions apply only for entry at a land or sea port of entry. They do not apply to international air travel.

The passport card exception is found at 8 CFR 235.1(b)(1):

Passport card. A U.S. citizen who possesses a valid unexpired United States passport card, as defined in 22 CFR 53.1, may present the passport card when entering the United States from contiguous territory or adjacent islands at land or sea ports-of-entry.

The exceptions for children are found at 8 CFR 235.1(b)(8):

(8) Children. A child who is a United States citizen entering the United States from contiguous territory at a sea or land ports-of-entry may present certain other documents, if the arrival falls under subsection (i) or (ii).

(i) Children under Age 16. A U.S. citizen who is under the age of 16 is permitted to present either an original or a copy of his or her birth certificate, a Consular Report of Birth Abroad issued by the Department of State, or a Certificate of Naturalization issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services when entering the United States from contiguous territory at land or sea ports-of-entry.

(ii) Groups of Children under Age 19. A U.S. citizen, who is under age 19 and is traveling with a public or private school group, religious group, social or cultural organization, or team associated with a youth sport organization is permitted to present either an original or a copy of his or her birth certificate, a Consular Report of Birth Abroad issued by the Department of State, or a Certificate of Naturalization issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services when arriving from contiguous territory at land or sea ports-of-entry [...]

The provisions at 22 CFR 53.2(b)(11) are essentially the same:

(11) When the U.S. citizen is a child under the age of 19 arriving from contiguous territory in the following circumstances:

(i) Children under age 16. A United States citizen who is under the age of 16 is permitted to present either an original or a copy of his or her birth certificate, a Consular Report of Birth Abroad, or a Certificate of Naturalization issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services when entering the United States from contiguous territory at land or sea ports-of-entry; or

(ii) Groups of children under age 19. A U.S. citizen who is under age 19 and who is traveling with a public or private school group, religious group, social or cultural organization, or team associated with a youth sport organization may present either an original or a copy of his or her birth certificate, a Consular Report of Birth Abroad, or a Certificate of Naturalization issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services when arriving in the United States from contiguous territory at all land or sea ports of entry...

Now a US citizen cannot be denied entry to the US if the US citizen can get to the border and prove his or her US citizenship by any means. The problem here is that the airline is not bound to transport US citizens based on any proof of citizenship; they are required to demand identification that meets the regulatory requirements.

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    I wonder what would happen at a pre-clearance location... – jcaron May 14 at 16:23
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    @jcaron I doubt they'd get to preclearance because they wouldn't get a boarding pass. If the airline decided to ask the local officers about it, they would probably also decline to let them travel. I suppose there might be a chance of getting them through, but I would be surprised if it succeeded. A US citizen with dual citizenship posted here to say that she was not allowed to fly from Canada to the US with ESTA; it's not entirely clear, but it looks like she was given a boarding pass and then stopped by CBP at the passport checkpoint and told she had to get a passport. – phoog May 14 at 16:53
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The problem has two layers.

Being allowed into the country -- they are US citizens. They cannot be refused entry into the US. However, immigration can detain them as long as is necessary to confirm their citizenship. The passport card should cover this task, however you are technically are violating the law (as phoog discusses at length). Expect considerable delay and a stern lecture, finger-wag and possible fine.

Being allowed to board an airplane (or boarding pass in preclearance airports) -- the bigger problem is the airline may be fidgety about allowing you on board the plane, if your credentials are not in order. And unlike CBP, they are not obliged to work with you, and they do not have all of CBP's resources to confirm your citizenship. They also face serious financial penalties for not pre-checking your credentials. As such, they are likely to refuse to let you get on the airplane. This will get decided ad-hoc at the gate, without any sort of appeals process, and when you miss the plane, you will eat the cost of the flight.

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    The airline is in fact obliged not to board the passenger if so instructed by CBP during the exchange of passenger manifest information that occurs before the boarding pass is issued. It's not just about "checking" the credentials; they transmit the credentials to CBP and get a message back telling them whether or not to let the person on the plane. So it's more than likely that they'll refuse to let them board; it's certain. – phoog May 14 at 18:01
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    @Phoog Would CBP really signal "do not board" for a person they know is a US citizen? – Harper May 14 at 18:19
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    Would they signal "okay to board" for someone whose documents do not comply with federal regulations (nor with the statute)? I do not think so. As I noted in another comment, they seem to have prevented a dual citizen from flying from Canada to the US with her non-US passport and ESTA. And this all assumes that the airline is willing and able to submit a passport card in the APIS transaction; there are probably procedures in place that prevent that, but I could not find them. – phoog May 14 at 20:34
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    @phoog yeah and that's probably it; the government would argue that a US citizen is entitled to enter the US with nothing but their birthday suit, but CBP is entitled to identify them and define the manner in which they do; i.e. at a consulate not the airport. It'd be an arguable case, sorta like the IRS "illegal income"/frivolous return case. – Harper May 14 at 20:54
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    @mickeyf I've never seen any evidence of a fee or fine, though I have heard something that suggests one may be in the works for land border crossings (w.r.t. the WHTI). Have you seen anyone actually fined? – phoog May 16 at 13:45
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Yes, they are correct. The passport card was designed for land and sea ports of entry and is not allowed for international air travel.

Passport card page from the State Department

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