Border-Crossing Made Easy
Your passport is a core piece of personal identification in the modern era of security-conscious travel, but it isn't the most convenient thing to keep with you. It's too large for the pockets in many pieces of clothing, and won't tuck neatly into a wallet or the smallest handbags. If you cross the border frequently at land or seaport crossings, a more compact version of the traditional passport booklet could be an attractive option. That's exactly what the State Department had in mind in 2008 when it started issuing passport cards.
What It Is...
The actual card itself is exactly what it says: All the same personal information that's in your conventional passport booklet—including, for better or for worse, the same photo—but converted into the format of a secure, hard-to-forge wallet-sized card similar to your driver's license. The primary advantage of the card is that, because it does fit into a wallet or billfold, it's more convenient to carry with you than the full-sized booklet. As long as you have even the smallest of clutch purses, or a single pocket available in your clothing, you're good to go.
...and What It's For
The whole point of the card is to make life easier for U.S. citizens who live in border areas, and frequently re-enter the country by land from Canada or Mexico, or by sea from those countries as well as Bermuda and the Caribbean. When you pass through a border control point, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents can accept your card in place of the conventional passport booklet. It has a built-in radio frequency identification chip they can scan to confirm your identity almost instantly. The card itself doesn't store any personal information; instead, the chip has a unique identifier number that's linked to your file on the State Department's passport database.
As an added bonus, it works as a piece of government-issued ID in times of need, just like your driver's license or passport booklet. What it won't do is serve as a replacement for a full passport booklet if you're flying or traveling internationally beyond Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean. Then, you'll need a conventional passport.
It's Great When You Have Kids
If you're getting passports for your kids anyway, it's well worth getting a card as well as the booklet. You don't need both, but it's convenient in a number of ways. First, of course, it means you can leave their passport booklets safely at home for road trips across the border. That alone reduces the likelihood of having to replace it in an emergency. Another perk is that it's a serviceable photo ID for children too young to have a driver's license. If you need to verify their identity on a domestic flight, or verify their age to get an airline's reduced rate, a passport card will do nicely. You could also take both your passport booklets and cards with you on a trip, but leave your passport booklets safe back at the hotel while you and the kids carry your cards as ID in case you get separated or encounter a medical emergency.
Getting a Passport Card
Use the State Department's passport renewal form DS-82 to order a passport card, if you already have a valid passport in usable condition. Your current passport will be renewed at the same time, so they'll both have the same expiration date. First-time applicants need to complete form DS-11 in person at a passport agency or acceptance facility. Any passport application for kids also uses form DS-11, and has to take place in person at a passport agency. Getting a card as well as the booklet adds $30 to the cost of each adult's application and $15 to a child's, raising the total from $110 to $140 for you and from $80 to $95 for each child. There's also a $25 "execution fee" for each passport card or booklet when you apply using form DS-11, so that adds $50 per applicant whether the passport is for a child or an adult. You can arrange to make a single payment that covers the entire family's applications, but the passports will be issued separately as they're approved.