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What Is a Passport?

Passport Book with RFID ChipWhat is a passport? Bear with me as I start at the beginning of planning for an international trip. If you're a citizen of the world for whom these are commonplace, you'll be wondering "Who doesn't know THAT?" Well, many Americans for one thing.

The United States is a large, diverse country. People can and do live their entire lives without traveling beyond its borders. There's plenty to see and do in this country. There is, in fact, a large percentage of Americans that do not travel internationally. I'm not sure there is an official count on this. I've read all kinds of statistics including the fact that there are over 113 million valid passports in circulation.

So for those Americans and any others who are unclear on this, let's get really basic. What exactly is this document? To quote the United States Department of State, "It is a document issued by a country to a citizen of that country, allowing that person to travel abroad and re-enter the home country." There's a government definition for you!

Every country in the world issues their own. Citizens of all countries need passports to travel out of their country and into another. There are exceptions, but that needs to be addressed in another article.

The format is a small booklet that is 3 1/2 inches by 5 inches. Applicants can choose between a standard passport with 28 pages or the non-standard book with 52 pages. At the front there are the official identification pages that contain your name and your officially affixed photo. (You supply a 2 inch by 2 inch photo when you apply). This page also contains the information on your birth date, where you were born, when and where the document was issued, when it expires, and that all-important passport number. You must sign it when you receive it for it to be valid. In the United States, they are valid for ten years for adults, and they're valid for five years for children 15 years of age and younger.

The pages that follow are empty waiting to be used for exit and entry stamps. Those empty pages are also where visas will be stamped if they are required. (Again, that will take another article.)

When you're leaving the United States, there is no government document control station. Your passport (and visas) will be checked for validity by the airline you are traveling with. When entering a new country, the Immigration Officer will check your documents. They may stamp it with the date of your entry. In most countries, you are allowed to visit for a limited amount of time (generally thirty days) without officially applying for an extended visit, so this stamp marks the start of your visit.

The Immigration Officer will check that date at your departure and stamp you out. For most travelers, these stamps are great memories of their travels.

O.K. maybe you knew most of these. It's just good to understand everything when you're planning your first big international trip. So now that you know what a passport is, you can move on to getting one and planning your itinerary!

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