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FTF > Research > Family Issues


By Kyle McCarthy

Did you know that a child departing the United States and traveling with only one parent, a guardian, grandparents or other adults, must have written and notarized permission from both birth parents or legal guardians to enter many countries, even on a cruise ship?

In an effort to halt international child abduction, runaways, and the transport of children involved in child-custody disputes, American carriers have been cracking down on adults departing the U.S. with minors. “This is due to the enhanced awareness of children’s rights in the last few years because of the Hague Convention,” explains Anne Arnott, Immigration Program Manager at the Canadian Consulate in New York.

To reinforce this policy, the U.S. Department of State requires that every citizen, no matter the age, must carry her own passport and must appear in person to apply for one. Since July 2001, strict guidelines for the issuance of passports to minors have required the presence of both parents, with proof of parentage, or one parent's appearance with a notorized statement of consent from the second parent (or divorce papers, death certificates, lawyer's letters.)  This is complicated, so be sure to call the National Passport Information Center's new toll-free phone assistance line, 877/4USA-PPT (877/487-2778 or  888/874-7793 for TDD/TTY help; or visit check the NPIC website before arriving at their office for your interview. 

If custody issues are a concern, The Children's Passport Issuance Alert Program provides notification to parents of passport applications made on behalf of minor children, and denial of passport issuance if appropriate court orders are on file with the CPIAP. The Office of Children's Issues (202/736-7000) will provide more information.

Additional paperwork is required for international travel with minors to Canada, Mexico and to several other countries. Christopher Lamora, a spokesman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the U.S. Department of State advises families:  "Contact the embassy of your destination country or study the Consular Information Sheets provided at to find out what that country’s requirements will be in terms of documentation, in order to bring a child into the country.”

In fact, the Consular Information Sheets issued by the U. S. State Dept., which does not make these regulations, now carry this routine warning:  "In an effort to prevent international child abduction, many governments have initiated procedures at entry/exit points.  These often include requiring documentary evidence of relationship and permission for the child's travel from the parent(s) or legal guardian if not present.  Having such documentation on hand, even if not required, may facilitate entry/departure."

Note: We recommend that any parent who has a different surname than their child also carry a photocopy of the child's birth certificate while traveling, providing legal evidence of "guardianship" in case of trouble. 

As one of our editors and her son discovered while checking in to an American Airlines flight to Cancun, Mexican law requires that if only one parent or non-custodial adult(s) is accompanying a minor under 18 into Mexico, he/she must bear a notarized letter from the child’s other parent(s) or guardian(s) granting permission to enter Mexico with the child, including the dates of travel, the accompanying adult’s name, contact information, and a notarized signature.

A Carnival Cruise Lines spokesperson noted documentation wasn’t mandatory on Carnival’s Mexico-bound cruises “unless the child is spending more than 24 hours in Mexico.” Mexican Consular Officer Hebe Cue corroborated this but added, “In case of weather or other cruise delay, it’s better if adults have the notarized permission letter. In any case, it is required for American minors entering Mexico by air, no matter how long their stay.”

Ms. Arnott agrees. “Canadian customs officers, who are the primary line of inspection for visitors, may require a notarized statement from both parents when they find a child under 18 traveling alone or with other adults. All carriers, including air, sea and land, can be fined for bringing people into Canada without the proper documentation.” A consular officer at the U.S. Office of Children's Issues ( 202/312-9700) verified that many countries require a Permission to Travel letter, and reiterated that parents’ notarized signatures plus identification for the child (certified birth certificate or passport), were both essential.

A spokesperson at American Airlines confirmed that they are enforcing this rule in order to comply with the foreign immigration process. A 2002 incident aboard the Norwegian Wind sailing for Alaska via Canada was one of the first indications  that cruise lines are now more cautious about boarding children without the proper documentation. At Royal Caribbean, an agent interviewed about Canada-bound cruises suggested single parents or other adults traveling with a minor carry notarized documentation “to be on the safe side.” And, in the experience of FTF member families, notarized documents have been requested from single parents driving with children at both the Canadian and Mexican land borders. 

Additionally, our staff experienced firsthand in 2003 (when planning for a press trip to Brazil) that some countries require a notarized original copy of the Permission to Travel Letter before reviewing visa applications for minors, regardless of who they travel with. 

Although travel agents and occasionally, the fine print on a brochure, are supposed to notify families that airlines and cruise lines may require proper documentation – or deny boarding – the paperwork can, and often does, slip between the cracks. 

Thorough documentation is especially important in situations such as travelers with different last names, same sex couples, and adoptive, divorced or widowed parents, who should carry certified custody or death certificates, as well as identification for themselves and the child.

Contact the FTF office ( 212/665-6124) or click here for a sample "Permission To Travel" letter you can print out, fill in, and carry with you on all future international travels.

Better safe than sorry.

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