How do you know what documents you need for a trip abroad?

12 October 2023
How do you know what documents you need for a trip abroad?

I was shocked to recently learn that over 60,000 travelers are turned back at destination points by immigration officers every year—have you heard about this?

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade association of the global airline industry, one in every 25,000 international passengers boards a flight with incorrect documentation.

Each mistake results in a fine to the transporting airline, to the tune of as much as $5k per passenger (and fines increase each year).

Even though governments worldwide view travel documentation checks as the airline’s responsibility, you don’t want to be turned away at the gate any more than at the border.

Use the following steps to learn what travel documents you will need for every trip abroad.

Start with travel.state.gov

In much of Europe, for trips lasting less than 90 days, the only travel document a US or Canadian citizen needs is a passport. 

Sounds easy enough, right?

Well, not so much because many countries require your passport to be valid for at least three to six months AFTER your ticketed return date. So, even if your passport doesn’t expire while abroad, you may be denied entry into a country.

Some countries have additional entry requirements, like vaccinations. For example, you must have proof of valid medical insurance to enter the Czech Republic (among other countries).

US and non US citizens can start by researching the entry, exit, and visa requirements for the country you are visiting at travel.state.gov. Also, look at the Health Requirements section to know whether you’ll be required to show proof of travel health insurance.

Check the airline’s website

Because the airlines are required to verify travel documents, and they pay a fine if they get it wrong, their websites are one of the best sources of information for what you need.

Here are a few examples from some of the big US carriers:

Traveling with kids

The ports of entry in many countries have security measures to prevent international child abduction. 

If you are traveling alone with a child, you may be required to present documentation proving you are the parent or legal guardian. You may also have to provide a letter of permission from the other parent.

If a child travels abroad with friends or relatives, contact the embassy or consulate of the country they will be visiting to understand the entry and exit requirements.

Personal note: A friend of mine is a single mother, and when taking her daughter to Vancouver, she carried a copy of her child’s birth certificate to prove she was the sole parent. Border agents never asked to see it, but she was prepared.

Gather these documents

For most international trips, these are the documents you’ll need to travel to and enter the country:

  • RealID driver’s license (required to board the plane)
  • Passport
  • Visa (if needed for the destination)
  • Travel health insurance (if needed for the destination) *

* Important! Even if the destination country doesn’t require travel health insurance to enter, pay attention to the country’s rules for receiving medical care. While medical services are free under the National Health System of the UK, it’s only for UK residents. Tourists will be charged 150 percent of the cost of any medical treatment they receive and unpaid balances can result in being barred from returning.

A note on international driving permits: I read that these were required in Italy, and so we got one, but the car rental company never asked to see it. Maybe it’s just required by traffic authorities? Woman shrug

Upcoming travel doc changes

At some point in 2024, US and Canadian citizens will have to pay for a visa waiver to enter Europe. Basically, travelers from countries that are currently not required to have a visa will pay for a visa waiver.

It’s called the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) and it requires international travelers from a designated list of countries including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the US to pre-register. ETIAS is an effort to better track border security in Europe, but many other travel destinations have something similar already.

Once your ETIAS application is approved, you can enter Europe as often as you like for a period of three years or until your passport expires.

Just for Fun—5 Countries that make entering nearly impossible

Some countries are just tougher to visit than others, from limited travel visas to restrictions on who can enter. The following countries are the hardest to enter:

  1. Eritrea requires an entry visa for everyone, and there’s no guarantee you’ll get one. Many people have had to apply multiple times before succeeding.
  2. Iran bans citizens of Israel (and travelers coming from Israel) entirely and has tough visa restrictions for American, British, and Canadian citizens.
  3. Nauru requires foreign visitors to obtain a visa in advance.
  4. North Korea doesn’t let anyone in unless they’re part of an organized tour and implements random total restrictions on some nationalities depending on the current political situation.
  5. Turkmenistan requires travelers to hire a travel company to enter and escort them through the country. You’ll also need a letter of invitation to cross the border.

Damian Tysdal

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.