SIKESTON -- United States citizens will soon need more than a driver's license to travel by air between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, South and Central America, the Caribbean and Bermuda.
The requirement will take effect Jan. 23, as part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, a new law being initiated by the Department of Homeland Security.
"It's really been oncoming for about two years now," said John Harper, owner of Harpers Travel Service in Sikeston. "I think it was inevitable with the terrorist situation."
Passports are issued at the Scott County Circuit Clerk's office in Benton, where employees have noted an increase in applications. "We are probably seeing maybe 15 or 20 a week coming in," said Leanne Flook, a deputy clerk. "Before, we might have two or three a week."
In 2008, the second part of the initiative, which will require passports for ground and sea transportation in and out of the U.S., will become effective. Passports will not be required for citizens traveling directly between the United States and its territories (Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Swains Island and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands).
However, Harper still advises clients planning a cruise to have a passport now, in case of an emergency and they have to fly home. "That doesn't happen very often, but things do happen," he said.
Flook has noticed several people doing just that. "We have a lot of people coming in for passports that have no travel plans at all, simply because they feel like this is something they need to do," she said.
And although a passport isn't always required, it can be beneficial. "If you have one, it's going to speed your crossing," Harper said. "It is by far the fastest and easiest way to get through security at airports."
So far, there hasn't been any real backlash to the new requirement, either. "No one has shared their displeasure over this," Flook said. "I think most of us realize why we are having to do this. For the safety of our country, this is what we need to do."
A potential problem for some may be finding an original birth certificate that is required, Harper said. But he has heard minimal complaints as well.
"I don't remember anyone coming into our office that has objected other than the cost to get it or the time frame," he said.
More information about the new requirements can be found on the Department of State's Web site, travel.state.gov.
Passports are processed through the Scott County Circuit Clerk's office, located on the second floor of the courthouse in Benton. Applicants will need to fill out or bring in a completed application, in addition to a photo ID such as a license, two passport photos, and a birth certificate with a raised seal. The birth certificate must be mailed in with the application, but will be returned, said Leanne Flook, deputy clerk.
The regular cost is $97 for adults and $82 for those under 16, and the whole process takes under 30 minutes unless the application must be expedited, which incurs extra costs and paperwork. Normally, a passport is received by the applicant within six to eight weeks, Flook said. The office is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and closed noon to 1 p.m. for lunch.