By Rick Steves
Your trip won't get off the ground if you don't prepare your documents — passport, vaccination proof, rail pass, international driving permit — well before your departure date. Give yourself plenty of lead time.
In much of Europe, the only travel document a US or Canadian citizen needs is a passport. (The US Passport Card works only for those driving or cruising to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, and the Caribbean.) And for most American travelers, that passport gets the most scrutiny from a customs official…as you reenter the United States.
Canadian citizens can refer to the government of Canada's travel site for passport information.
Getting or Renewing Your Passport
US passports, good for 10 years, cost $165 ($130 to renew). The fee for minors under 16 (including infants) is $135 for a passport good for five years — kids under 16 must apply in person with at least one parent and the other parent's notarized permission.
You can apply at some courthouses, libraries, and post offices, as well as municipal buildings, such as your city hall. For details and the location of the nearest passport-acceptance facility, see the US Department of State's travel site or call 877-487-2778. Processing time varies; the current wait is posted on the State Department website. During busier periods, waits of six weeks or more are common. Five to seven days after you apply, you can check online for the status of your application and your passport's estimated arrival date.
If you need your passport in less than six weeks, make an appointment to go in person to the nearest US Passport Agency. You'll pay an additional $60 expediting fee, plus overnight shipping both ways, and you'll get your passport by mail within seven weeks (likely much sooner). In a last-minute emergency, call the above number and speak to a customer-service representative. If you can prove that you must travel within two weeks (by showing evidence of a purchased airline ticket or a letter from work requiring you to go overseas on short notice), you may be able to receive a passport in 24–72 hours.
Keep an eye on your passport's expiration date. Many European countries require that your passport be valid for at least six months after your ticketed date of return to the United States. This means that even if your passport doesn't expire for a few months, you may be denied entry to a country. Check your destination country's requirements, and if necessary, get your passport renewed well before you go.
Some countries have surprising entry requirements. For example, the Czech Republic and Poland technically require visitors to carry proof of medical insurance (your health insurance card usually suffices). For requirements per country, check with the US State Department (use the "Learn about your destination" search tool).
Traveling with Your Passport
Guard your passport carefully. Keep it in your money belt, and if you're asked to show it, put it back in your money belt right away.
Thanks to a series of treaties known as the Schengen Agreement, there are virtually no border checks between most European countries. (But three countries especially popular with travelers are not part of Schengen: Croatia, the Republic of Ireland, and the United Kingdom.)
Schengen or no, you always need to show your passport at your first point of entry into Europe, when you exit Europe, and to reenter the US. Starting in late 2023, you'll also need to register with ETIAS to travel to any Schengen country (see "ETIAS Registration" later in this article). But when traveling between participating countries, you usually don't have to stop or show a passport: You'll simply blow past abandoned border posts on the superhighway or high-speed train. Non-Schengen countries still have border checks — but the border crossing is generally just a quick wave-through for US citizens.
Free movement within the Schengen area can be affected by events that cause countries to increase security; if this happens you may encounter internal border checks in some countries. These measures aren't aimed at tourists, but don't be surprised if you encounter an ID check within the EU at an airport, train station, or highway border crossing.
Replacing Your Passport
If you need to replace a lost or stolen passport in Europe, it's much easier to do if you have a photocopy of it and a couple of passport-type photos, either brought from home or taken in Europe.
You'll likely need to carry proof of vaccination against the coronavirus, a negative COVID-19 test result, and/or proof of medical insurance. Many countries are working to establish a uniform "vaccine passport" that would gather this health information in a single certificate or digital app. You'll likely be asked to present this documentation at your departure airport, at customs in Europe, and upon return to the US. For current requirements, consult the US State Department's country-by-country list; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has helpful info on international travel.
A travel visa is a stamp placed in your passport by a foreign government, allowing you to enter that country. Visas are not required for Americans or Canadians traveling in western and central Europe.
Beginning in 2024, travelers entering a country in the Schengen area will need to obtain a visa with the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) — see more below.
Visas are required to visit Turkey and Russia. For travel beyond Europe, get information on visa requirements from your travel agent or the US State Department.
No Visa Required
When you enter a country without a visa you're officially on "short stay visitor" status. Within the Schengen area, that means you can stay up to 90 days within a 180-day period; most non-Schengen countries in Europe also have a 90-day limit (one big exception is the UK, which allows you to stay up to six months within a 12-month period). If your trip will extend beyond the three-month mark, you'll need to get creative with your travel plans (for example, spend the requisite amount of time outside the Schengen area before reentering) or look into a long-stay visa.
At some point in 2024, US and Canadian citizens will be required to have a visa before entering Schengen countries. The European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) application will cost about $8 USD; once approved, the travel authorization will be valid for three years. SchengenVisaInfo.com, an unofficial but useful site, has more details.
Canadians and Americans must obtain a visa before entering Turkey. You can get your "e-visa" online or by visiting a Turkish consulate or embassy. US residents pay $50; Canadians pay $60 (that's US dollars, not Canadian). Cruise-line passengers don't need a visa if they visit Turkey by day but spend nights aboard their ship. But cruise passengers arriving in Turkey to start their cruise, departing from Turkey at the end of their cruise, or staying on Turkish soil for more than 72 hours must get a visa before arriving in Turkey. For more information, check with Turkey's embassy in the United States or in Canada.
Most travelers to Russia also need visas. The process can be expensive, and you should begin at least 60 days before your departure. For more, see my how-to on Russian visas.
Trusted Traveler Programs
To expedite airport security, you may want to consider enrolling in a trusted traveler program.
More than 50 airlines at over 200 US airports participate in the TSA PreCheck program, which allows you to register to skip lines and elements of TSA screening ($85, valid for 5 years).
If you're a frequent international traveler, consider the US Customs' Global Entry program, which includes TSA PreCheck privileges at the start of your trip and lets you bypass passport control when you return ($100, valid for 5 years).
Any US citizen can use the free Mobile Passport app, which lets you use an express lane to pass through customs at major airports. Download it before you leave, enter your personal information and flight info when you return to the US, then scan your phone at a Mobile Passport express lane.
Students in high school or college can save money by carrying their school ID cards when traveling. In general, people under age 26 are eligible for many discounts in Europe: Show your student ID at ticket counters, museums, and bus and train stations, and you'll be surprised at the number of discounts you'll receive. Be aware that some discounts apply only to EU residents.
Some young travelers like to carry the International Student Identity Card (ISIC), an internationally recognized student ID card that provides discounts on transportation and sightseeing throughout Europe and includes some basic trip insurance. Cards cost $25 and are good for one year from the date of issue (you must be a full-time student). They're available on the ISIC website or from your university foreign-study office.
Rail Passes and Car Documents
Most rail passes are not sold in Europe and must be purchased before you leave home. If you're renting a car, be aware that an International Driving Permit is required in Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain ($20 plus tax; get it at AAA before your departure). Even if you aren't renting a car in Europe, bring along your driver's license — it can come in handy if you need to leave a piece of ID to rent a bike or audioguide and you don't want to part with your passport.
Copying Key Documents
Before your trip, scan, make photocopies, and/or take photos of your documents (front and back) to pack along, upload to the cloud, or leave with someone at home in case of an emergency. It's smart to make copies of the following:
- Passport, visa, and proof of vaccination and/or negative Covid-19 test
- Rail pass
- Car-rental voucher
- Prescriptions for eyewear and medicine
Don't copy a debit or credit card — instead, keep just the number in a retrievable place. Consider bringing a couple of extra passport-type pictures, which can expedite the replacement process for a lost or stolen passport. If you're traveling with a companion, carry copies of each other's passports and other important documents. Guard your physical copies as carefully as you would the originals. I hide mine in a pouch clipped into the bottom of my luggage (don't tell anyone).
Some people scan their documents and email them to their account, or store them on a cloud service such as Dropbox for easy access from the road. If you're concerned about electronic copies of your key documents floating around in cyberspace, you could save them to a USB flash drive and tuck it into your money belt.
It's also smart to have a backup physical or digital copy of your itinerary, including hotel and car-rental confirmations and sight reservations. An itinerary-storage website, such as Tripit, is handy. Or go completely old-school and tuck a list of contacts, including your hotels — printed as small as you can read on a slip of paper — in your money belt.