Before you can travel anywhere, you need to make sure you have the proper travel documentation for yourself and your kids. For single parents, this can be a little tricky.
For US domestic travel via car or air, no special documentation beyond the parent’s drivers license should be necessary. As many times as I’ve flown with my son, we’ve never been asked for any proof of identification or age for him. However, if you are traveling to a destination (such as a theme park) where you are expecting to pay a reduced “child’s rate” for tickets or service, you may want to bring a copy of the birth certificate (B.C.). My son looks much older than he actually is, and while his age has never been questioned, I do sometimes travel with a copy of his B.C. or his passport just in case.Similarly, for closed-loop cruises that start and end in the U.S., all you are REQUIRED to bring is a birth certificate for each traveler. Passports are not required in this case (even if you temporarily disembark the ship at a foreign port), however, I would rather travel with a passport since it would be easier to replace than a B.C., should the identification be lost or stolen. Additionally, if you are on a cruise and experience an emergency that requires you to leave the ship, you cannot fly back to the US from a foreign port without a passport. For example, if you are in the Caribbean and experience a medical emergency that requires hospitalization in a foreign country, you would not be able to fly back home without a passport (and the cruise ship isn’t going to wait). Most cruise companies and seasoned travelers strongly recommend that all passengers have a passport when cruising.
To get a passport as a single parent is a little more difficult. The instructions for obtaining a U.S. passport for minors under the age of 16 are here.
If there are two parents on the birth certificate, the U.S. State Department requires that both parents provide consent for the passport to be issued. Preferably, they expect BOTH parents to appear at a designated passport office in person; however, it is recognized that this isn’t always possible. If both parents cannot appear, the absent parent must provide a signed AND notarized Form DS-3053: Statement of Consent, which can be downloaded from the page linked above. The applying parent must bring this signed AND notarized form (along with the other required documentation) to the designated passport office.
The link above also gives information on what to do if it isn’t possible to contact one parent. In those cases, the applying parent must complete DS-5525: Statement of Exigent/Special Family Circumstances and explain in detail why the absent parent is not available. Additionally, you will need to provide legal documentation (court orders, death certificate, incarceration orders, etc.) to document the claim of exigent or special circumstances.
In order to complete the application process, you will have to mail your child’s original B.C. (along with the other required documentation) to the State Department for processing. So, it’s important to do this during a time when you will not need your child’s original B.C. for anything else. It takes about 4-6 weeks for the paperwork to be processed and the B.C. and passport to be mailed to you. If you are planning a trip, I would advise completing this process at least 4-6 months before your departure date, as the State Department does often have delays in processing.
Once you have the passport, there is still additional documentation that may be necessary in order to travel abroad. Most reputable travel companies will recommend that, in addition to a passport, you also travel with a signed AND notarized letter from the absent parent stating that the absent parent is aware of and consents to travel to specific locations on specific dates. While there is no official form letter for this documentation, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website offers suggestions for content here. If the absent parent cannot provide this letter due to extenuating circumstances, you will need to travel with the documentation that is required with submission of form DS-5525.
As noted on the Customs and Border Protection website there can be pretty serious consequences if a single parent attempts to travel into foreign countries with the child(ren) without permission from the other parent. You may never be asked for this documentation (on our recent trip to Germany, I was not ever asked to show the letter I had from my son’s dad), but again, it is better to be safe than sorry. If you are asked and cannot provide this documentation, it will certainly cause a delay in your travel plans that will cost you both time and money (if it doesn’t torpedo the vacation completely).
If you are a single parent by choice and there is not a second parent on the B.C., then you will likely not need to submit any additional information when applying for the passport. However, it is strongly recommended that you bring both the child’s passport AND B.C. when traveling internationally, in case you are asked to show proof that the child only has one parent.