The Difference Between Passport Books and Passport Cards — and Why It Matters

What to know about these key travel documents.

<p>belterz/Getty Images</p>

belterz/Getty Images

Traveling abroad requires proper documentation, and that usually means a passport — the classic, pocket-sized book with your photo and empty pages for visa stamps. But did you know that another type of passport is available in the United States? It's called a passport card. While passport cards have their limitations, they are often cheaper and easier to get than a passport book. Here's everything you need to know about the differences between passport books and passport cards — and how to decide which one is right for you.

Related: How to Get a Passport as Quickly as Possible

What Is a Passport Book?

<p>yenwen/Getty Images</p>

yenwen/Getty Images

When you think of a passport, you probably picture a passport book. This book is the gold standard for international travel documentation, issued by your home country's government. In the U.S., passport books are navy blue, and they count as a Real ID, or form of federally accepted identification. Your photo and personal information, including your birthday, birthplace, and gender, are in the front of the book, as is your passport number, its date of issue, and its expiration date (they're valid for 10 years). Behind this are blank pages for visas, which are often stamps or stickers that you'll receive at a country's border control.

What Is a Passport Card?

<p>Courtesy U.S. State Department</p>

Courtesy U.S. State Department

In the U.S., a passport card is a Real ID–compliant form of identification that allows you to travel to certain international destinations, and by certain means of transportation only. Namely, a passport card is typically used for land crossings into Canada and Mexico, though it also grants access to Caribbean countries and Bermuda by land and by sea. A passport card looks similar to a driver's license, with your photo and personal details listed on the front. And it's small enough to fit in your wallet. Like a passport book, a passport card is valid for 10 years.

Differences Between a Passport Book and a Passport Card

While passport books and passport cards are both government-issued forms of ID that allow you to travel internationally, they have significant differences. The most important difference is that passport books are accepted for all forms of international travel to all international destinations, whereas passport cards are only acceptable for land and sea transportation to Canada, Mexico, Caribbean countries, and Bermuda. That means if you're flying internationally, no matter the destination, you need a passport book.

They also differ in price. Passport books have first-time application and renewal fee of $130, but passport cards have a first-time application and renewal fee of $30. Both services also have a $35 processing fee. And, of course, they differ in size and appearance, with passport books being pocket-sized books and passport cards being the size of a standard ID that can fit in your wallet.

Should I get a Passport Book or a Passport Card?

Passport books are mandatory for most forms of international travel — you'll definitely need one if you plan to fly internationally (and perhaps you'll want a great passport wallet to keep it in). Passport cards, on the other hand, are generally better for people who need to drive into Canada or Mexico regularly, or who plan to sail from the U.S. Caribbean or Bermuda. Passport cards are also ideal for people flying domestically who do have a passport but don't have a driver's license, as passport cards are Real ID–compliant and are therefore valid for domestic travel.

Can I Get Both a Passport Book and Passport Card?

You can have both a passport book and a passport card at the same time. In fact, if you already have a passport book, your passport card's processing fee will be waived. If you do not have a driver's license, a passport card may be a good option to use as a Real ID for domestic flights. Just remember that you can't use passport cards for international flights.

How to Get Passport Books and Passport Cards

Getting a passport book or a passport card requires the same process. You can even use the same application paperwork for both, and you simply check off which document you want, or select both. First-time applicants will need to visit a passport office in person to complete the process. For renewals, you can apply by mail. Applicants must provide proof of their U.S. citizenship during the process (originals or certified copies are required), a second form of eligible ID, and a passport photo that meets strict criteria. Right now, passport books and cards can take nearly four months to receive, so make sure you apply well in advance of any international travel, though there are ways to get your passport faster if necessary.

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