U.S. Passport Book vs Passport Card – Which One Should You Get?

If you’re wondering, “Which should I get, a U.S. Passport Card or a Passport Book?”, you’re not the only one with that same question. On the surface, a Passport Card might seem like the easy and cheap option.

You’ll learn the differences between a Passport Card and a Passport Book and what you should know before purchase.

There are subtle distinctions that can be confusing when trying to decide between a Passport Card and a Passport Book. Here are suggestions on whether to buy a passport book or card for your next cruise or air travel vacation.

It’s really important to know the limitations of a Passport Card so you don’t get caught unprepared if an emergency happens or your itinerary undergoes an unexpected detour or delay.

Picture of navy-colored U.S. passport books
A U.S. Passport Book can simplify your international travel.

Differences Between a U.S. Passport Card vs. Passport Book

While both the Passport Card and Passport Book are proof of your identity and U.S. citizenship, they have very different rules and regulations. Here’s a general way to note the difference between the two forms of government-issued identification. 

A Passport Card was primarily designed for northern and southern U.S. land and sea border crossings. A Passport Book is what you need for international air travel and to re-enter the United States. But the devil is in the details. 

What is a U.S. Passport Card?

The size of a credit card, a U.S. Passport Card is convenient to carry, costs less than a traditional U.S. Passport Book and does some of the same things that a Passport Book allows you to do. However, a U.S. Passport Card has certain limitations that affect your ability for foreign travel. 

Example of a Passport Card
Passport Card – similar size to a driver’s license.

While the Passport Card is cheaper to buy than a Passport Book, the card can only be used for re-entry into the U.S. from four countries. These countries are Bermuda, Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico. 

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Think of a Passport Card as a surface-only official identification card. But remember: it’s only good for re-entry by land or sea into the United States from the four countries listed. There’s no way around this requirement.

U.S. Canada Border between Washington state and Canada
Aboard Amtrak going from Canada into Washington state.

A Passport Card was created mainly for the convenience of residents in border cities to make it easier for commuters and workers to cross back and forth. If all you ever plan to take are cruises that depart and return to the U.S., if you ride Amtrak between the USA and Canada or simply want to drive across the border, a Passport Card will work for you. 

You cannot use a Passport Card for international air travel. Period.

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What is a Passport Book

A U.S. Passport Book is exactly as described; a book. The familiar navy-colored Passport Book has many pages to be filled with colorful, unique and interesting country stamps. You will receive a stamp on the pages as you go through customs upon arrival into or departure from a country. There is also room for visa stamps.

It’s the only document that the U.S. government will allow you to use to enter a foreign country other than Bermuda, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, and then re-enter the United States on your return. If you plan a transatlantic cruise from the U.S. to Europe and then fly home, you will need a Passport Book to re-enter the United States. A Passport Card is not enough. 

As stated above, a Passport Card is enough identification for a cruise that departs from and returns to the U.S. However, it’s important to remember that if you’re on a cruise and you should become ill and have to fly home, your surface-travel-only passport card will definitely delay your re-entry  into the US. Have a Book and you could be on a flight home asap.

Deciding on a Passport Card vs. Passport Book for Your Cruise

Even though you can take a cruise from the U.S. and return to the U.S. using only a Passport Card, there could be reasons why you should have a Passport Book instead. 

  1. Injury or sickness:  If you become ill or injured on your cruise, you could be admitted to a local hospital for care and treatment. If that happens, there’s a good chance the ship will depart without you. If this should happen, you will need a U.S. Passport Book to fly home.
  2. Cruise ship problems – It’s not a frequent problem but cruise ships can be damages or have mechanical issues that are unable to be repaired during your cruise. If this happens, you may need to fly home from a country which requires a passport to set foot on land. You would also need a U.S Passport Book to fly home.

Taking a Cruise Without a Passport Card or Book

Oddly enough, U.S. citizens may still cruise to certain destinations without either a Book or Card. On closed-loop cruises, those that begin and end in a U.S. port, all you need to take are your ship’s boarding pass, a government photo I.D. if you’re over 16 years and a certified birth certificate or certificate of U.S. naturalization.

Eight closed-loop cruise itineraries from the U.S. do not need a Book or Card. These destinations include Alaska, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, Cozumel and Baja-Mexico, Canada/New England and Hawai’i.

The consequences of trying to return home to the U.S. without a passport could be life-threatening. Should something unexpected prevent your ship from returning to the U.S. or you or a travel companion are ill or injured, traveling with only a certified birth certificate will certainly prevent a timely return to the United States.

Cost of a Passport Card vs. Passport Book

The cost of a Card versus a Book is about half as expensive. According to the U.S. government travel website, those 16 years of age and up and applying for the first time, the cost of a Passport Book is $145.00. At nearly half as much, the cost for a Passport Card is $65 for those also 16 years and older. 

Sixteen years and younger, the first-time Book is $115 and the Card is only $50. An expediting fee is also available if you need a Passport Book in a hurry. The government mails all Passport Cards first-class USPS.


If you plan a closed-loop cruise and the $80 difference between a Book and a Card is a hardship, then maybe you shouldn’t go on a cruise. Is it really worth the risk should something happen to you or your ship and you’d have to fly home? You’ll most likely have an exorbitant fee for an expedited U.S. passport sent to wherever you are stranded.

My suggestion is if you plan any international travel just bite the bullet and get a Passport Book. Besides, at the end of the day, it’s always fun to look back through the pages in your Book and see all of the neat, colorful and odd-looking stamps you’ve accrued over the years.

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