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If you spend enough time looking up how to travel with multiple passports on the internet, you'll invariably run across hundreds posts telling you that, by law, "US citizens must enter and exit the US on their US passport." I am also very aware of what 8 US Code §1185 says, which is as follows:

Except as otherwise provided by the President and subject to such limitations and exceptions as the President may authorize and prescribe, it shall be unlawful for any citizen of the United States to depart from or enter, or attempt to depart from or enter, the United States unless he bears a valid United States passport.

I fully understand what it means to 'enter the US on a US passport' and I can't figure out why a US citizen would ever try to enter the country on another country's passport anyway (if only to avoid the even longer lines at the border).

But what does it mean to 'depart the US on a US passport'?

The US obviously doesn't have standard exit immigration controls, like you get in nearly every other country (save the UK, Canada, Ireland, NZ, and Australia). So how can you 'exit the US on a US passport' in the first place?

Does this refer to what passport information you give to the airlines?

Obviously airlines are not border patrol, and I know the airlines are primarily concerned with whether you have the permission to enter the country you're going to so they can avoid getting fined by countries if you get denied entry. But they do also share your biographical data and passport info with the countries that you're exiting and entering (e.g., APIS in the US). The US, in particular, also uses this info to generate departure information for non-citizens' I-94s, so one could make an argument that this does constitute 'exiting the US'.

If it does refer to what info you give the airlines, then would people giving the airlines their non-US passport details (either for visa issues or just out of convenience) to for a flight out of the country technically be breaking the law?

If it doesn't, then what is this 'exit' stuff that the law speaks of? Is it just there in case the US decides it wants to start doing exit checks? I know that on very rare occasions, CBP does do spot passport checks at gates for flights departing the US, but this is far from the norm. And in such a situation, I wouldn't even think of ever showing a non-US passport to CBP as a US citizen.

So, fine people of the internet, what think you? Is this wording just some legal nonsense, or does it have practical significance?

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  • "I know that on very rare occasions, CBP does do spot passport checks at gates for flights departing the US, but this is far from the norm. And in such a situation, I wouldn't even think of ever showing a non-US passport to CBP as a US citizen." Of course, that's if you have a US passport. But there are US citizens who might leave the US without having a US passport. For example, if they didn't have time to get a US passport after naturalizing before traveling, or if they are not eligible for a regular US passport due to back taxes, back child support, etc.
    – user102008
    Apr 27, 2023 at 1:18
  • Ah, good point. I suppose if someone is a US citizen but they literally can't get a passport for whatever reason, then I can see why they'd might want to try to leave the country (or enter it) on a foreign passport. Apr 27, 2023 at 2:40
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    "I can't figure out why a US citizen would ever try to enter the country on another country's passport anyway" – Maybe because they don't have a US passport. I have friends who are US citizens because their parents are, but have never lived in the US. Ordinarily they travel on their home country's passport. This rule means they need to go to the cost of getting a second passport if they wish to visit the US. Apr 27, 2023 at 17:55
  • @RichardSmith I can see the argument as to why someone might not want to go through the hassle of getting a US passport if they were born overseas, don't live in the US, and perhaps didn't have their foreign birth registered, etc. as it's certainly not a quick process. But some countries actually allow you to enter their country as a citizen using a foreign passport, so long as it has a citizenship endorsement (like New Zealand). Seems that could be a good solution to this problem, though it's unlikely the US would ever start doing something like that anytime soon. Apr 27, 2023 at 20:59
  • My reading of that would be: if asked, you need to present your US passport to any US border official on exiting the US, either at the land border, or at passport control (if you exit via air/sea). The airline’s main concern is your eligibility to enter the country they fly you to (to avoid trouble with that country), hence they need to see whatever passport gives you that eligibility. While they might additionally ask for your US passport (if and only because the US government requires them to do so), I’d expect that to be rare. Still, you need to have a valid US passport with you on exit.
    – user149408
    Apr 28, 2023 at 19:07

3 Answers 3

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But what does it mean to 'depart the US on a US passport'?

It means you must have a valid passport with you when leaving.

Just because they don't check every single person every single time they leave doesn't change the legal requirement.

Except as otherwise provided by the President and subject to such limitations and exceptions as the President may authorize and prescribe, it shall be unlawful for any citizen of the United States to depart from or enter, or attempt to depart from or enter, the United States unless he bears a valid United States passport.

unless he bears:

Bear definition and meaning | Collins English Dictionary:
If you bear something somewhere, you carry it there or take it there.


So, fine people of the internet, what think you? Is this wording just some legal nonsense, or does it have practical significance?

If you have a valid passport when leaving, then you will most likely have a valid passport when returning (where in most cases it will be checked).

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    Very interesting. That was sort of my take on it, too, when I saw the wording of the law. When read that way, there's technically no requirement to 'show' a US passport at entry/exit, only to carry it... at least if that's the accepted interpretation of the term 'bear,' which I suspect would be the case given that that's the generally accepted interpretation of the term in the phrase 'right to bear arms'. Still not sure why a dual national would attempt to enter the US on their other passport anyway, but that's beyond me. Apr 26, 2023 at 19:57
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    A dual national might have been abroad for a long time, and the passport expired. Or the dual national might have been born abroad to US parents, and never been to the US. The dual national might prefer to come to the US using a foreign passport and obtain a first passport, or renew an old one, while in the US. Apr 26, 2023 at 21:24
  • I suppose those are all plausible situations. Though, given the lengthy passport application processing times we're seeing in the US these days and the relatively quick times at embassies and consulates oversees (especially for an emergency travel document), to say nothing of the need to get an ESTA or visa with most foreign nationalities, seems like there's still really not a great reason to try to come back to the US without your US passport if you're a citizen. Apr 26, 2023 at 22:39
  • @GerardAshton the dual national might also have lost the US passport. I've also heard of a treaty that requires the US to allow China consular access to dual Chinese/US citizens if they entered the US on a Chinese passport (and vice versa), which implies that such a dual citizen has a right to do so that should take precedence over 8 USC 1185.
    – phoog
    Apr 27, 2023 at 8:35
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    @phoog that's what I am confused by: if I do own and currently bear my US passport, am I not legally required to use it? The quotes in this answer suggest that it would be enough to simply have it with me even if I don't actually present it to the officer, which seems odd. I've always used the US one on entry, both because I would be dumb to risk it since I do have it, and because that results in the quickest entry, I'm just curious now because of the wording of the quote in the answer.
    – terdon
    Apr 27, 2023 at 15:48
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I'm going to take a slightly different tack from Mark Johnson, whose answer is, nonetheless, essentially correct.

But what does it mean to 'depart the US on a US passport'?

It means that you must use your US passport when you check in for a flight departing the US. However, this phrase, which appears on several official sites, mischaracterizes the law, which as Mark Johnson notes does not require US citizens to use a US passport but only to bear it. In other words, the government is claiming that the law means something other than what it says. This is not unusual in immigration law.

Some examples follow.

From https://www.usa.gov/dual-citizenship

if you have dual citizenship, you ... must use a U.S. passport to enter and leave the U.S.

From https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/legal/travel-legal-considerations/Advice-about-Possible-Loss-of-US-Nationality-Dual-Nationality/Dual-Nationality.html

U.S. nationals, including dual nationals, must use a U.S. passport to enter and leave the United States. Dual nationals may also be required by the foreign country to use its passport to enter and leave that country. Use of the foreign passport to travel to or from a country other than the United States is not inconsistent with U.S. law.

The executive branch often adopts incorrect interpretations of the law. When this affects you, you have two options: you can go to court to obtain a ruling from the judicial branch establishing that the executive's interpretation is flawed, or you can accept the executive's interpretation.

Practically speaking, the executive's interpretation in this case, that you must "use" your passport to depart the US, can only mean that you must present it to the airline when you leave the US, because the government does not otherwise inspect the passport. But there is no consequence for using a foreign passport (I've been doing this for years), so you are not harmed by this misinterpretation of the law and you therefore have no standing to sue the government.

And in fact, the sentence "use of the foreign passport to travel to or from a country other than the United States is not inconsistent with U.S. law" may be intended to cover dual citizens leaving the US, though it is far from clear.

If the US started insisting on dual citizens using a US passport to check in for their departing flights, and imposed conditions that created some sort of disadvantage (such as preventing them from using their foreign passport at the place of arrival), then someone will sue. The chance of this happening is fairly small, I think, but it could happen as the EU implements ETIAS and the US tightens up its entry/exit system. More likely than legal trouble, however, is difficulty checking in with an airline whose systems do not support sending different passport details to the country of departure and the country of arrival.

Another aspect of this is that there is no penalty for violating 8 USC 1185(b) (see What is the penalty for US citizens entering/leaving the US on a foreign passport?). So you're not going to find yourself in court. The worst that could happen if you try to leave the US without a passport is that the government somehow finds out and prevents you from boarding because your departure would be unlawful (they sometimes screen departing passengers; I've never seen it but someone on flyertalk says it happens frequently on certain flights to places associated with money laundering). If you have your US passport, though, you can just show it, and they should let you go, even if you checked in for the flight with your foreign passport.

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  • Thanks, that's an interesting analysis. So you are equating "passport for used for US exit" and "passport used for check in with the airline". That would mean you are not allowed to use different passport for US exit and OtherCountry entry. Pretty much every country in the world allows that. Or to be precise: What passport I use to enter another country is between that country and myself. The US should have no legal standing in that matter. If they actually wanted to enforce it, it would make more sense to ask the airline to check both: entry and exit doocuments
    – Hilmar
    Apr 27, 2023 at 12:03
  • @Hilmar I'm saying that the person who wrote "you must use your US passport to leave the US" probably means that you have to use the US passport to check in, but they're wrong about it. "That would mean you are not allowed to use different passport for US exit and OtherCountry entry": not necessarily. It's possible, for example, to check in for a flight to the Schengen area using a US passport and then show the EU passport on arrival. "It would make more sense to ask the airline to check both: entry and exit doocuments": airlines do this. The problem is that they normally report the same...
    – phoog
    Apr 27, 2023 at 15:30
  • ... document for both. I found earlier today that there's someone on flyertalk who is saying CPB has even implemented logic to check departing foreign passports that lack an entry record against US passports to identify dual citizens and avoid flagging them unnecessarily as potential illegal entrants or overstayers. This is the first I've heard of it, so I have no authoritative source for it, but it makes sense -- and only reinforces the idea that any statement from the government that a US citizen "must use" a US passport to depart is simply incorrect.
    – phoog
    Apr 27, 2023 at 15:35
  • @phoong That's precisely what I'm trying to figure out when it comes to 'exiting' the US on a foreign passport. For example, if I give the airline my Polish passport info at check-in for a flight departing the US, will CBP record that as an exit for a PL citizen and get confused because that APIS data shows a PL citizen leaving the US that never actually entered the country? Or are their computer systems smart enough to link my PL and US passports using my name, DOB, place of birth, photo, etc.? Seems no one has run into trouble with this yet, but it does raise some interesting questions. Apr 27, 2023 at 20:52
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    @geekypenguin27 "if I give the airline my Polish passport info at check-in for a flight departing the US, will CBP record that as an exit for a PL citizen and get confused because that APIS data shows a PL citizen leaving the US that never actually entered the country": if CBP gets confused, that's their problem, not yours. If their systems can't figure it out, what negative consequences could result for you? None. That's why nobody has run into trouble with it. Their matching the records is for their own benefit, and if they don't manage, it's to their detriment.
    – phoog
    Apr 27, 2023 at 21:53
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But what does it mean to 'depart the US on a US passport'?

I think they mean "don't depart the US on another country's passport".

Because then you have a passport mess - the foreign passport shows an exit stamp but no entry stamp prior to that, since you entered the US on a US passport... right? *

So I think you are reading some regulatory forcefulness into it, but maybe it's just a friendly reminder not to make a "flub" i.e. mistake or oopsie. The consequence being that other immigration agents would be confused or suspicious of the spurious exit stamp (since US exit stamps are rare).

It would be an easy error - especially if traveling by air. The US doesn't have exit controls, so I wouldn't expect to need my US passport. Any airline will need to see my destination visa etc. to even board you**. So I'd have my destination passport ready to present, with USA passport buried in my bags. When someone in a uniform asks for my passport, a distracted or complacent (or just tired) traveler might just automatically hand it over, and not even realize they were CBP and not airline! So yeah, I could see making that mistake very easily.

You could also infer a meaning of "don't depart the US on no passport at all", which is indeed illegal as discussed in other answers.




* Since US law requires that.

** Since airlines are punished severely when they fly a passenger to a country without checking that they have the papers in order to enter that country. Those penalties must be pretty high, since the airline makes out like a bandit - they forcibly sell you an immediate return ticket at full list price, void your planned return ticket and sell that seat to someone else.

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    "they forcibly sell you an immediate return ticket at full list price, void your planned return ticket and sell that seat to someone else". Do you have a source for that? The time it happened to me, the airline (United) put me in the next flight back (all three legs, two of them international) at no charge. Apr 28, 2023 at 12:05
  • @MartinArgerami Super interesting... I always wondered what happened flight-wise if you got denied entry to a country. Did you have a return ticket on United? Or did you book separate one-ways with two different airlines? Perhaps that plays a role in if you get charged for the return flight? And as an aside, have you had any other issues with border control/immigration in other countries since getting denied entry? Wondering how much that one experience in one country has affected your future travel elsewhere. Apr 28, 2023 at 18:44
  • @geekypenguin27: I did have a return economy ticket for a week later. Yes, without any ticket you would probably have to pay full-price for the return. I wasn't denied entry in a visa sense, it was that I didn't have the proper documentation according to the official. The situation was a bit ridiculous, for had I arrived from a neighbouring country I would have been allowed in. In fact the immigration officer would have been satisfied if I had bought a out-and-return ticket to a border country and back on the day. Apr 28, 2023 at 18:53
  • @Martin Here. travel.stackexchange.com/questions/23622/… I bet if you read your contract of carriage you're responsible, but they waived it as a courtesy (being a first tier airline and all, and/or the peculiarities of your situation). Don't go expecting it from RyanAir lol. Apr 28, 2023 at 19:23
  • @geekypenguin27 Yes, the delivering airline is absolutely responsible for returning you. If you tell them about your competitor return ticket, they might make a phone call and see about an inter-carrier courtesy... but if not, the return ticket is forfeit and ultimate responsibility lies with the delivering carrier who can rebill you. Apr 28, 2023 at 19:42

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