New from Uncle Sam: a passport that fits in your wallet

Well, here's a cool idea. I can't believe the federal government thought of it and actually made it happen.

For Americans who travel a lot across borders by land or sea, say to Canada, Mexico, or on Caribbean cruises, the State Department is now issuing zippy little Passport Cards, which are sized for wallets and contain the mandated (and controversial) RFID chip that makes crossing borders much breezier.

Makes sense to me. Booklet-size passports are vestiges of an earlier age, back when we traveled with steamer trunks and dollar notes were as big as hankies. Passports are also easy to lose, partly because they don't fit in wallets and partly because crooks can easily spot them. Having a high-level federal I.D. in your wallet at all times can also be mighty handy. Bouncers and postal clerks may quibble over accepting that gym membership card, but it's hard to argue with a passport.

According to the U.S. Department of State, you use the same supporting I.D. documentation for apply for a passport card as you do for a traditional passport, which means once you've got one, you're vetted, and you can use it to apply for a booklet passport later on if you want. You can even apply for both the booklet and the card at the same time without having to pay an extra execution fee or send more photos (just two will do the trick for both).

The downside is that you can't use the passport card to travel by air, mostly because so many countries are used to passport booklets. But for many routine crossings, a card will be enough and easier to keep track of. I'm sure just about everyone in Detroit will have one by the time the year is out. Passport Cards are also a good start for smoother worldwide travel.

If you've never had a passport of any kind before, the card costs $45 ($35 for kids), but if you have a passport issued within the past 15 years, it's just $20. If you've never had a passport at all (don't be ashamed; Sarah Palin got her first one just last year, which is admittedly unusual for someone vying for a top federal position with international responsibilities), I strongly suggest having one on hand for spontaneous travel. Besides, having one is now required for entry to nearly every country you can think of. The new Passport Cards began production on July 14.

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