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For decades, and currently, U.S.-based cruise ships have operated under rules that permit U.S. citizens to travel to ports in Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean without need of a passport. New rules proposed by the U.S. departments of State and Homeland Security, however, may soon do away with that loophole, meaning even passengers taking weekend jaunts to the Bahamas will need a passport -- no ifs, ands, or buts.

Called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, the rule changes are part of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, and are currently in a review period in which State and Homeland Security invite comment from the public and affected industries. The final ruling will be issued later this year following review of those comments, and will likely recommend implementation of the plan.

"Generally, it seems that the cruise and travel industries aren't objecting to the rules themselves," said Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer De La Cruz, "just the implementation timeline, particularly as it relates to the first phase."

That's because the first phase is coming up fast. If implemented according to the proposed schedule, all U.S. citizens traveling to the Caribbean, Bermuda, and Central and South America will be required to carry passports as of December 31, 2005 -- just seven months from now. A year later, the rules would affect travelers to Canada and Mexico, and on December 31, 2007, passports would be required for all air, sea, and land border crossings. Various fast passes would be available to truck drivers and others who cross the border on a regular basis.

The bottom line? "Generally," says Carnival's De La Cruz, "our advice to guests is that if they're traveling on a cruise in 2006 or beyond, they should plan to get a passport. These rules are likely to be finalized in the not-too-distant future and it's difficult to predict whether or not there will be any modification to the implementation timeline."

Time to go passport shopping. Don't dilly-dally either, since U.S. passport services are likely to be deluged when and if the new rules take effect. Passport applications generally take six to eight weeks to process, though expedited service is also available (see below).

If you don't currently have a passport, the State Department website (http://travel.state.gov/passport) provides information on obtaining one. Current fees are $97 for citizens age 16 and older, $82 under age 16.

To get a passport for the first time (or if you have an expired passport issued more than fifteen years ago, or issued while you were under 16), you need to go in person to one of 6,000 passport acceptance facilities located throughout the country, bringing two photographs of yourself, proof of U.S. citizenship (an expired passport, certified birth certificate, naturalization certificate, certificate of citizenship, or consular report of birth abroad), and a valid form of photo ID, such as a driver's license. Acceptance facilities include many federal, state, and probate courts, post offices, some public libraries and a number of county and municipal offices. Find the one nearest you using the State Department's search page, at http://iafdb.travel.state.gov.

Citizens who need a new passport for travel within two weeks may visit one of thirteen regional passport agencies, listed at http://travel.state.gov/passport/about/agencies/agencies_913.html. Appointments are required, and you'll need to bring a completed passport application (downloadable at http://travel.state.gov/passport/forms/forms_847.html), appropriate ID, proof of citizenship (see list above), and two regulation passport-size photos. Expedited service costs $60 plus any mailing fees, above and beyond the regular application fees.

If you don't live near a passport center, you can apply for expedited service at a local passport acceptance facility, located in post offices, courthouses, and so on, and then follow up through overnight mail.

You can renew an expired passport through the mail as long as you were over age 16 when it was issued and still have the same name (or can provide legal documentation of a name change) and your old passport is undamaged and was issued within the past fifteen years. Forms are downloadable at http://travel.state.gov/passport/forms/forms_847.html. Fees for renewal are currently $67. Expedited renewal services are available for an additional $60 plus mailing costs.

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