Ever Heard of a Closed-Loop Cruise? Here’s What to Know About These Unique Sailings

A lesser-known rule allows U.S. travelers to sail to some international destinations without a passport as long as they are on what is known as a “closed-loop cruise.”

Cruise ship at twilight in Alaska with snow-capped mountains in the background and a little bird house above the water in the foreground

You don’t need a passport to sail through Canadian ports en route to Alaska as long as you start and end your cruise at the same U.S. port.

Photo by Heather Shevlin/Unsplash

A closed-loop cruise is a cruise that departs from and returns to the same U.S. port and remains in the Western Hemisphere. As such, it does not require the passengers to have a U.S. passport—even if the itinerary visits some international ports along the way.

According to U.S. Customs and Borders Protection (CBP), rules established by the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative require that U.S. citizens who are traveling abroad hold a valid passport—unless they are on a closed-loop cruise. Those sailing on a closed-loop cruise can enter or leave the country with an alternative proof of citizenship, such as a government-issued driver’s license or birth certificate.

If your sailing does not end at the same port where you began—for instance, if you are thinking of booking a one-way Panama Canal itinerary from San Diego, California, to Miami, Florida—you will need a passport. And be aware that some Caribbean islands (more on this in the Caribbean listing below) do require a passport, which means your cruise line will require a passport before you board the ship if you are sailing to a destination that independently requires it.

Do kids need a passport for a closed-loop cruise?

Kids do not need a passport if they are sailing on a closed-loop cruise. If there is a passport requirement, each person in your party needs to have a passport, including infants and toddlers. All cruises throughout the world that sail in destinations outside the United States and that are not closed-loop cruises require a passport.

What form of I.D. do you need for a closed-loop cruise?

If you are on a closed-loop cruise that begins and ends at the same port in the United States and visits Canada, Mexico, or much of the Caribbean, you do not need a valid passport. According to CBP, all you need is documentation proving you are a U.S. citizen. In lieu of a passport, you can present these alternative documents on a closed-loop cruise:

  • Enhanced driver’s license, which is a state-issued driver’s license that provides proof of U.S. citizenship (currently available only to residents of Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington)
  • Government-issued driver’s license
  • Government-issued birth certificate
  • Official certificate of naturalization

Where do closed-loop cruises sail?

Closed-loop cruise itineraries that do not require a passport include:

  • Alaska: Cruise to Alaska on closed-loop sailings that typically start and end on the West Coast, stopping in Canada along the way.
  • Bahamas: There are numerous closed-loop cruises to the Bahamas from ports up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
  • Bermuda: Sail to Bermuda on closed-loop cruises from East Coast ports, including Baltimore, Boston, New York City, and Port Canaveral, Florida.
  • Canada: You can sail round-trip to Canada on a closed-loop cruise from Boston, New York, and New Jersey.
  • Caribbean: Start and end your Caribbean sailing in ports like Miami, Fort Lauderdale, or Tampa in Florida; Mobile, Alabama; New Orleans; or Galveston, Texas. Keep in mind that some islands—including Martinique, Guadeloupe, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and St. Bart’s—do require a passport.
  • Mexico: Sail down to Mexico on a closed-loop western Caribbean cruise from Florida ports, New Orleans, or Galveston, or to the Pacific side of Mexico to destinations such as Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, and Mazatlán from California ports—without a passport. Belize and Honduras, which are sometimes included on these itineraries, also waive their passport requirements for cruise ship passengers.

The risks of not bringing a passport on a closed-loop cruise

Even though a passport is not required on a closed-loop cruise, there’s a reason why cruise lines often strongly encourage passengers to bring a passport. While you are in a foreign port, if you run into any problems and need to cut your trip short and fly home, you will need a passport to fly back into the United States—passports are required for international air travel. It can also be an issue if you miss your embarkation due to a flight cancellation or delay and need to fly to an international port of call to catch up with your cruise.

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR