In 2009, the U.S. government launched the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) to clarify documentation requirements for cruise ship passengers. The WHTI allows U.S. citizens to travel on closed-loop cruises without a passport.
Below we’ll define what is a closed loop cruise and the documentation requirements for U.S. citizens.
What is a Closed Loop Cruise?
A closed-loop cruise begins and ends in the same U.S. port. For example, an itinerary beginning and ending in Miami, Florida, or a round-trip sailing from Seattle, Alaska.
A cruise that begins in one U.S. port (say Miami) and ends in another (Fort Lauderdale) is not a closed-loop cruise.
A typical closed-loop cruise might depart from Miami, Florida, and sail to the Caribbean and Bermuda before returning to Miami.
Round trip cruises departing from the U.S. must meet specific criteria to qualify.
According to U.S. maritime law, ships that are not US-flagged must make at least one stop in a foreign port.
Most cruise ships sail under foreign flags, which is why Alaskan itineraries include a stop in Canada and why there are so few Hawaiian cruises.
Most Caribbean and Bahamas sailings don’t need to worry about the requirement because they already include visits to foreign countries.
To qualify for closed-loop status, the cruise must begin and end in the U.S. However, it can visit contiguous territories or islands adjacent to the continental U.S., including Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean.
Do I Need a Passport for a Closed-Loop Cruise?
Most U.S. citizens don’t need a passport for closed-loop cruises that depart from American ports.
According to U.S. Customs & Border Protection, U.S. Citizens can enter the United States with a birth certificate and government-issued photo I.D., including:
- U.S. Passport
- Passport Card
- Birth Certificate
- Enhanced Driver’s License
- Trusted Traveler Program card (NEXUS, SENTRI, or FAST)
- U.S. Military identification card when traveling on official orders
- U.S. Merchant Mariner document when traveling in conjunction with official maritime business
- Form I-872 American Indian Card
- Enhanced Tribal Card
Of course, you can use your passport as your I.D., but the ability to sail without a passport is one reason why closed-loop cruises are so popular.
Closed-loop sailings are the most common type of cruise offered by cruise lines. They provide simpler logistics for the cruise line by beginning and ending in the same port.
They also make vacation planning easier for passengers who book round-trip flights. And those that drive to the port will have their car available at the end of the cruise vacation.
U.S. or Canadian children under 16 only need to present a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship.
It’s worth noting that some ports, such as the island of Martinique, require a passport to enter. You’ll have to stay on the ship if you don’t have a passport.
It’s best to check with your travel agent, cruise line representative, or the U.S. Department of State website before sailing.
Required Documentation for Non-US Citizens on a Closed-Loop Cruise?
Most Caribbean islands only require a photo I.D. from U.S. citizens. However, they might require a U.S. Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) to have a photo I.D. and a Permanent Resident Card (also known as a green card or I-551).
If you are not a U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident, you will be required to present the appropriate documentation, including a passport. Non-U.S. citizens must present a passport for any cruise, including closed-loop sailings.