The Enhanced Driver’s License as a Passport Substitute

written by A. L. Hart Havens on February 1, 2021

The coronavirus‑induced travel restrictions enacted across the world over the past year should be evidence enough even to the most oblivious of observers that international travel privileges can no longer be taken for granted. More specifically, the restrictions imposed on US citizens by other countries led to a decline in the quality of the US passport from one of the world’s most powerful to being on par with that of a third‑world African country.

It should be emphasized at the outset of this essay that the most effective method of increasing a person’s ability to travel freely across international borders is the acquisition of additional citizenships. Although second‑citizenship acquisition often requires considerable investments of time, effort, and/or money, a few options are indeed available to concerned citizens who are neither extremely patient nor deep-pocketed.

Those who seek a convenient, quick, and inexpensive albeit less effective alternative to a genuine second passport will be pleased to learn that a limited number of opportunities to achieve this do in fact exist. One of these is the enhanced driver’s license.

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), a brainchild of the US Department of Homeland Security in cooperation with the US Department of Defense, came into effect in 2009 among the continued slew of national security legislation enacted in the long wake of September 11th. The WHTI’s stated objective is to require international travelers to present secure identification documents where this was not previously the case, such as for travel between the United States and Canada.

The fact that the WHTI considers regular driver’s licenses be insecure gave rise to the Enhanced Driver’s License (EDL), which also functions as a passport for international land and sea travel to and from 20 countries in the Western Hemisphere, most notably the United States, Canada, and Mexico. EDLs are accepted only at sea ports and land border crossings of participating countries, as the WHTI prohibits the use of enhanced driver’s licenses for international air travel.

While no Central American or South American countries participate in the WHTI, there are currently 17 Caribbean and Atlantic island nations and territories that do. These are Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, Aruba, the Bahamas, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, the Netherlands Antilles, Saint Kitts & Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent & the Grenadines, and Turks & Caicos.

As a word of caution, given the abrupt changes to port‑of‑entry requirements witnessed across the globe over the past year, it would be wise to verify a Caribbean vacation destination’s continued participation in the WHTI before arranging any travel plans on an enhanced driver’s license.

Furthermore, the EDL does not constitute a waiver of any applicable visa requirements. Although this has been a non‑issue for US and Canadian citizens travelling to Mexico and the Caribbean, it is not inconceivable that the visa‑free travel privileges enjoyed by US and Canadian citizens to date could be severely curtailed at some point in the near future.

Five US States and Two Canadian Provinces

Currently, enhanced driver’s licenses are available only to US citizens residing in the states of Vermont, New York, Michigan, Minnesota, and Washington, and to Canadian citizens residing in the provinces of Manitoba and British Columbia. The provinces of Ontario and Quebec formerly issued enhanced driver’s licenses but have discontinued this service.

An EDL typically costs only $20 more than a standard driver’s license. Some states/provinces perform a quick on‑the‑spot background check and/or require applicants to partake in a brief verbal interview.

US and Canadian citizens who are not residents of the aforementioned states and provinces are out of luck when it comes to the enhanced driver’s license, although US citizens residing in any state or country may obtain a US passport card. The US passport card offers the same international non‑air travel benefits to and from WHTI countries, but it is not a driver’s license.

Thus, holders of US passport cards are required to carry a standard driver’s license as an additional physical card with separate costs and renewal obligations. Additionally, enhanced driver’s licenses are quickly and conveniently obtainable at the local DMV or Secretary of State office, whereas passport card applications are processed by the US State Department.

Not an International Driving Permit

Don’t confuse an enhanced driver’s license with an international driver’s license though, as the latter is an entirely different document that allows citizens of participating countries who possess valid driver’s licenses to operate motor vehicles on the roads of other participating countries (primarily in accordance with the 1968 Vienna Convention on Road Traffic).

An international driver’s license – also known as an international driving permit – is merely a paper‑booklet translation of a license issued by the driver’s home country. It is valid only in combination with the corresponding government‑issued driver’s license and only in countries that officially recognize international driver’s licenses.

Although there is certainly no harm in obtaining one, it should be noted that international driver’s licenses (unlike enhanced driver’s licenses) do not feature any passport, residency permit, or visa functions. They are thus of very little value when it comes to crossing international borders other than for the purpose of demonstrating a valid driving permit to border officials when travelling by car.

REAL ID and RFID

The enhanced driver’s license as well as the US passport card are equipped with RFID chips and are accepted as valid identification for domestic US air travel where REAL ID requirements are currently in effect. The REAL ID Act will be imposed across the entire United States starting October 1, 2021, which means that adult passengers will no longer be permitted to present a regular driver’s license for domestic US air travel.

As many Americans do not possess a valid passport and have no desire to experience the hassle, the wait, and the costs involved in obtaining or renewing one, an EDL conveniently functions as a driver’s license and a passport of sorts combined into one single low‑cost wallet‑sized card.

Down Mexico Way

Particularly in the current political climate prevailing in western countries, concerned citizens would be well advised to establish firm ties with at least one free and prosperous jurisdiction abroad that can serve as a safe harbor in times of distress.

However, if a decision needed to be made to leave the United States or Canada quickly in the absence of such foresighted planning, an enhanced driver’s license would offer an additional resource that could potentially prove helpful in gaining entry to a country with more desirable living conditions. After all, national passports can be lost, damaged, cancelled, and confiscated by a home or foreign government and can take a long time to restore or replace.

It is obvious that the enhanced driver’s license doesn’t offer nearly the international protections or diversification benefits of a second citizenship, but it is nonetheless a resource of some value that can serve as additional international travel document in a citizen’s passport repertoire. For US and Canadian citizens residing in the aforementioned states and provinces, acquiring an EDL as a backup plan is definitely worth the approximate $20 investment.

As the worldwide coronavirus furor wears on with no discernible end in sight, it will become more difficult to predict how governments may change their rules, and more importantly whether they will refuse to properly abide by their own visa policies. And given that a temporary or long‑term discontinuation of international civilian air traffic is not out of the realm of possibility, the idea of driving or walking into Mexico has become an increasingly realistic scenario.

Finally, because there are absolutely no guarantees when it comes to dealing with government and border officials of any country, the more options a person has in place, the better off he will be. With this advice in mind, it would not be the worst idea to keep an enhanced driver’s license in hand when making a run for the border.