36

Hilmar wrote in one of their answers:

a US citizen with an expired passport can not be denied entry to the US but no airline will let you board.

His first statement is supported by https://www.aclunc.org/our-work/know-your-rights/know-your-rights-us-airports-and-ports-entry

U.S. citizens cannot be denied entry to the U.S. for any reason, including for refusing to produce passwords, provide device access, or submit electronic devices for a search. Lawful permanent residents cannot be refused entry unless their travel was not brief (more than 180 days) or they engaged in illegal activity after leaving the United States as defined in 8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(13).

Why would airlines not let a US citizen with an expired passport board a plane?

(Assume the US citizen doesn't have a REAL ID driver license, or some other document that airlines would accept.)

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    'Why' questions are not the right kind for Stack Exchange as we users can not see in the heads of the people who decide on the decisions. – Willeke Apr 18 at 13:39
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    @Willeke There are plenty of Why questions on Stack Exchange. People who "decide on the decisions" sometimes also use Internet, and also may have stated somewhere their reasons for their decisions. – Franck Dernoncourt Apr 18 at 13:41
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    You know the underlying why, the Database the airlines do base their decisions on do not mention that without a valid passport you could be allowed into the USA. But I bet you want an answer that explains why those airlines do not go round the database information. – Willeke Apr 18 at 13:54
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    To discuss something other than the rule the airlines follow, is perhaps a better question "why might a citizen not be allowed a current passport" ? I can imagine at least one reason in that perhaps they are accused of a crime and their current, unexpired passport is held by a court to block travel. – Mike M Apr 19 at 2:55
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    I'm not sure how it works in the US but I assume you could renounce citizenship but still have an old expired passport. So it's not clear how you prove citizenship in this scenario – user1936752 Apr 19 at 19:19
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So this guy rocks up to the airline counter:

Guy: Here's my US passport.

Airline Employee: It's expired

Guy: Yeah, but it's a legit US passport! Honest!

AE: You got any other ID?

Guy: Nah, but look at my passport. It's a genuine US passport!

AE: So you want me to assume that because you are in possession of an expired US passport in your name, that you are still eligible to enter the US because you are a citizen. But you can't provide me with any other proof that would support that assumption?

Guy: Well, yeah. But look at how shiny and blue the passport is!

This reads like a Monty Python sketch.

While it's true that a US citizen can not be refused entry to the US, how do you expect $RandomAirline to validate that traveller is a current US citizen if all they can proffer up is an expired travel document?

Given that an airline can be fined for allowing passengers on a flight who are ineligible for admission at a destination, it behooves the airline to reject any passenger who cannot adequately prove who they are or that they have the correct travel documents.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Willeke Apr 20 at 8:49
  • Place your additional comments in the chatroom. – Willeke Apr 22 at 4:52
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Because the US government wants it this way.

Rule #1: The government requires all citizens to travel with a valid passport (or equivalent). See https://www.usa.gov/enter-us

Rule #2: CBP (Customs and Border Protection) cannot deny entry to a US citizen: see for example https://www.axios.com/us-citizens-rights-at-the-border-430039f3-724b-4a26-8ad8-976346c95431.html

So what happens if a citizen without passport (or expired passport) shows up at the border? Turns out rule #2 trumps rule #1 and so CPB has to admit them. The government doesn't like that and so they basically use the airlines to enforce rule #1 for them.

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    Thanks, "they basically use the airlines to enforce rule #1 for them.". How do they convince/force the airlines to enforce rule #1? – Franck Dernoncourt Apr 18 at 14:27
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    If it's at the government's behest, in what way does the government prevail upon airlines to enforce that? – Sneftel Apr 18 at 14:27
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    If an international traveler is refused admittance at the destination or transit point, the airline is required to fly the refused traveler back to the point of departure, at the airline's expense (the airline will try to collect this from the passenger, but that's a different issue), and may in addition be fined. All countries require this of airlines who bring passengers to the country's territory. At least back in the day of full aircraft, this was a powerful disincentive to accept a passenger with less-than-convincing documents. – DavidSupportsMonica Apr 18 at 14:39
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    The government simply tells the airline what to do and the airline would be stupid not to go along with it. There is nothing for the airline to gain and a lot to loose in picking a fight over this. In some cases the government will levy substantial fines. Travel is a privilege, not a right. – Hilmar Apr 18 at 17:40
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    @MaxPower You're comparing apples and oranges, as the ID requirements for domestic travel are grounded in different law from passport requirements, but in fact, you don't need an ID to fly. If you lose your ID on the way to the airport, you'll still be able to get on your flight, and of course it's a non-issue for private flights as well. But in any case, this is Travel.SE, not Law.SE, and this back-and-forth demonstrates why "why" questions are generally a bad fit for Stack Exchange. – choster Apr 18 at 23:15
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A CBP liaison office has told IATA to write in TIMATIC that a valid passport is required, and TIMATIC is what airlines go by. Whilst entry with an expired US passport can't be refused, the carrier would be heavily fined for transporting the passenger.

Equally, in South Africa, South Africans are legally supposed to have a valid passport; there, failure to comply results in a fine for the passenger as well as the airline.

For many other countries TIMATIC does say expired passports/other proof of citizenship is accepted, even though national law may stipulate you're supposed to have a valid one. In that case a carrier would not be fined, but the passenger might.

For instance, for Bosnia TIMATIC says valid or expired Bosnian passports or ID cards are accepted. However, if using an expired document, or a valid ID card other than if arriving on a direct flight from Belgrade, a Bosnian citizen could receive an administrative fine.

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    Please cite evidence that an airline can be fined for delivering a passenger to a location that traveler can legally enter. – WGroleau Apr 18 at 22:02
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    @WGroleau I haven't read anything published about it, but various handling staff and border officers have explained it to me, saying it's due to additional administrative hassle on the part of local authorities. – Crazydre Apr 18 at 22:25
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    The carrier will not be fined for delivering a passenger to a legal destination. However, if Timatic tells them not to make that delivery, they will likely refuse. – WGroleau Apr 20 at 15:33
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    @WGroleau But it isn't in fact legal to enter the US with an expired US passport, although there's no penalty for it, so in practice the CBP can merely be morons about it and scold you for it. The carrier, however, would be penalised since legally the passenger didn't hold the proper documents. – Crazydre Apr 20 at 15:34
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    I didn’t claim proof for anything, I merely asked for evidence. – WGroleau Apr 20 at 16:49
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The problem with this scenario is the same one as that person will have at the immigration checkpoint: while the law says that US citizens cannot be denied entry, how does the immigration officer know that they are, in fact, a US citizen? Now, the immigration officer has four things that the gate agent does not have:

  • Access to the full resources of the US government, so they could, for example, use a birth certificate, driver's license, social security number, etc. to verify that person's identity, and from verifying the identity go on to verify the citizenship status.
  • Knowledge of US immigration and citizenship law.
  • Time. The law says that US citizens cannot be denied entry, it doesn't say that they can't wait a little bit while their citizenship status is verified.
  • Experience in recognizing, reading, interpreting, and verifying various documents that can be used to establish identity or citizenship, such as birth certificates.

The gate agent has none of that. They are not US government agents, they cannot take an arbitrary amount of time (the plane's not waiting, but the other passengers in the queue are!)

How would the person prove to the gate agent that they are, in fact, a US citizen, and do that in a way that is fast to verify, easy to verify, and possible to verify for a random gate agent of a random airline at a random airport in a random country? Where I fly from, some gate agents don't even work for a single airline, they are provided by the airport as a service to the airlines. They might handle an Asiana flight to Seoul right now, an hour later a South African flight to Johannesburg, and then a Delta flight to Atlanta.

Do you expect them to memorize the immigration law of every country on the planet, and be familiar with the citizenship laws of every country on the planet, and be able to recognize, read, interpret, and verify every possible document that can be used to prove every possible citizenship of every country on the planet? Heck, people in the US cannot even agree with each other whether Barack Obama was born in the US or Kenya!

It is simply impractical to expect a gate agent to be able to verify that someone is a US citizen who has no document showing that they are a US citizen.

It is just much easier, and much cheaper, to rely on an automated system that contains a set of simple, easy to follow, and easy to check rules, and that system says that in order for a US citizen to fly to the US, they need a valid passport. The US government could have put a different rule in the system, but they decided not to.

Note that there is another aspect that was not mentioned in the question nor in any of the answers so far that has nothing to do with immigration or citizenship: airlines are also, in at least some cases, required to verify the identity of their passengers. Typically, travel documents (and certainly passports) also pull double-duty as identity documents. So, even if this hypothetical passenger were allowed to board the plane for immigration reasons, they would still need to prove their identity using a valid, internationally recognized identity document … most likely a passport.

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    How about accept the fact that the expired passport is still very strong evidence that this is a US Citizen? – Joshua Apr 20 at 19:57
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    Do you want to be the gate agent that is responsible for letting the next 9/11 hijackers onto a plane just because you thought an invalid passport still looks "good enough"? Do you want to be the airline executive that has to buy insurance for that case? The gate agent is not a Border Patrol officer. They have no training in how to determine whether an invalid US passport is "good enough" or not. They have no access to US government databases to verify the identity and citizenship by means other than the passport. – Jörg W Mittag Apr 20 at 20:30
  • I do not want to be the airline who was sued for civil rights violations either. – Joshua Apr 20 at 20:33
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    If you can point me to the Article in the Constitution that says that some random airline on the other site of the globe has to let you fly without valid documentation, I will gladly retract my statement. – Jörg W Mittag Apr 20 at 20:39
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    @Joshua The link says the CBP have to let you cross the border. It does not say the airline has to transport you to the border. – Jan Apr 21 at 12:47
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This is the TL;DR version :-)

US customs can determine if the traveller is the bona fide holder of the expired passport and whether they are a US citizen.

The airline can do neither with confidence.

If the airline allows the passenger to travel to the US and the claim is not valid the airline may be fined.

Not allowing the passenger to travel is the superior option for the airline.

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5

Here's an analogy: Let us suppose, for a moment, that you are a Season Ticket holder for a local Sports Team. Today is a really important game, and the stadium is going to be packed.

Unfortunately, there was a mix-up with this year's Season Ticket, and it wasn't sent out to you properly. They'll get it to you as soon as they can, and for today they have a runner waiting to check your ID, and escort you to the VIP box as an apology for the situation. Nothing can stop you from getting in to watch the game!

Except, your taxi driver is a bit put out by all of the traffic - going all the way there, with zero chance of a return-fare (because everyone is staying to watch the game) isn't going to make them as much money as doing other trips around the city. However, as a fellow fan of Local Sports Team, your taxi driver will take you to the Stadium - if, and only if, you can show a valid Ticket for the game.

Which, you don't have.

A Season Ticket Holder [Citizen] will not be denied entry to the Stadium [Country]. But, first, they have to get there. And the Taxi Driver [Airline] is under no obligation to take you if they think it will be a waste of both your time.

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    Thanks I was hoping that the airline had more means of verification than the fellow fan. – Franck Dernoncourt Apr 20 at 13:34
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    @FranckDernoncourt If they did, then - personally - I would be distinctly worried about how much personal information about their citizens the United States was willing to casually share with the airline... – Chronocidal Apr 20 at 22:48
  • There are services for verifying documents validity. – akostadinov Apr 21 at 17:39
  • @akostadinov How many of them can be carried out from another country, in less than 2 hours? – Chronocidal Apr 21 at 18:07
  • @Chronocidal, this is not the point. Not sure why I wrote my first comment. If it is fake, then the user would have set a proper expiry date anyway. What are chances after all for a user to lose citizenship because passport expired? Not more than losing citizenship without passport being expired. – akostadinov Apr 21 at 21:00
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Being a US citizen, and being able to prove that you're a US citizen, are two different things.

If you show up at the border then, as a citizen, they have to let you in — but only if they actually know that you are a citizen. Otherwise everybody in the world could just say "hey guys, I'm a citizen, let me in" and that would be that.

This is the whole point of identity documents.

There is no magic, secret handshake that reveals you to be a bona fide citizen in the absence of said documents.

So it should not be surprising that when your documents are out of date (effectively, you have no valid evidence of being a citizen), the airline will not take a chance on transporting you.

If you got to the US border with a valid, non-expired passport and CBP did not let you in, that would be a problem.

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    People who haven’t been forced by police (after arrest) to be fingerprinted can’t prove anything by their fingerprints. And face recognition has been proven unreliable. – WGroleau Apr 20 at 15:37
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    @AsteroidsWithWings "These are biometric measurements matched to records on file." -> Doesn't the US have records of face pictures or fingerprints of their citizens? According to WGroleau at least some citizens gave their fingerprints. "Come on this is obvious" -> please don't assume that anyone in the world is familiar with the US. Only 5% of people live there. – Franck Dernoncourt Apr 20 at 16:13
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    @FranckDernoncourt Yes, so, if there are records, congratulations you can get in. Do the airlines have access to the national citizen face database? Of course not. It's not obvious because of anything to do with the US. I know very little about the US. I don't live there either. My point is that your question is asking why airlines don't just take your word for it on being a citizen. The answer is... why on earth would they?? End of story, really. – Asteroids With Wings Apr 20 at 16:16
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    @FranckDernoncourt In what way is it not? It is premised on your expectation that airlines would accept an expired passport as a valid travel document, because CBP need to be able to let in [proven] citizens. That's literally what your question says. That's a question formed by two non sequiturs back to back from an established, high rep user, which is kind of weird to me to be honest. Have a good day. – Asteroids With Wings Apr 20 at 16:21
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    @FranckDernoncourt may I ask why you insist on being so argumentative, in comments? You're the asker here. Don't like this answer? Don't select it. Really don't like it? Down vote it. As this answerer points out in comments, you are a high rep user. Please stop using comments as chat. You should know better – CGCampbell Apr 21 at 21:41
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None of the other answers seem to address why a person with an expired US passport might not be a US citizen.

Here are two reasons:

  1. After the passport expired, the individual did something which caused an automatic loss of US citizenship. Here's a list of possibilities. Generally these things don't immediately result in a loss of citizenship; there would be a court hearing.

  2. After the passport expired, the individual intentionally lost his/her US citizenship by obtaining another citizenship, and then renouncing his/her US citizenship before a US consular officer.

The airline has no way of knowing whether an expired passport indicates a loss or renunciation of citizenship, or whether the person merely forgot to renew. The airline has to err on the side of caution by not allowing into the United States a person who might not legally be able to be there.

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Airlines are not able to track what the actual requirements for crossing a border are. These requirements change, are sometimes really unclear, and sometimes quite ideosyncratic. Airlines have to rely on databases (timatic) that do this job for them. If the database says that your documentation is insufficent, and they have no evidence to the contrary, they will deny boarding (in order to avoid possible fines, as mentioned elsewhere).

I am familiar with a smallish country where it was - over years - possible (and legally possible) to get a visa at the border, even though timatic said otherwise. If you were flying with their national carrier, there was no problem relying on this, because there was always some representative from the airline in the vicinity of the gate who would confirm that these people could board. But if you were relying on getting a visa-on-arrival and were flying some other airline, possibly on a non-direct flight - well, bad luck for you.

This situation is rather similar to the one the OP describes in that entry was legally possible, but this was not reflected in the references available to the airlines.

P.S. as for why the CBP would tell timatic that people can only board with valid passports, I suspect there is some practical reason. E.g. higher incidence of people using someone else's expired passport. Or people misplacing their old passport, reporting it as stolen and then forgetting about it. When travelling in a foreign country, would you rather be told "Your cannot board that plane because your passport is expired. Please visit your embassy." or "You cannot board that plane because you are travelling on a passport that has been reported stolen. Please call a lawyer."?

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  • So there was an actual airline representative in a (to them) foreign country? – Crazydre Apr 21 at 17:20
  • I do not know what the actual job title of that guy was. Maybe agent would be a better fit.. He was an employee of the airline (not of the airport or some local airport service company) and was able to make decisions about tickets, who gets on the plane etc. The airline has an office with a few employees from their country in my country (which I find unsurprising), and he is probably one of them. – Jan Apr 22 at 1:01
  • Ah K, I've only seen that with a few major airlines e.g. Aeroflot and Turkish Airlines. IME the handling agents are usually on their own. – Crazydre Apr 22 at 1:54

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