If you’re planning on crossing any international borders with children this coming summer—even for short trips to the U.S.—get your documentation lined up. It’s not as simple as it used to be—and that’s a good thing. Child abductions by parents, relatives, or in some cases strangers are growing exponentially, and border agents worldwide are demanding solid proof that adults travelling with children (usually 18 or under) have permission to do so from at least one of the parents (or legal guardians), preferably both.
How vigilant are the border agents?
On my own last two trips from the U.S. to Canada with my wife and two grandkids (then 9 and 12), I was asked for letters of parental permission even though the kids have my name and their own passports and seemed more than happy to be where they were.
Fortunately, I had such a letter, clearly notarized and relatively simple to read. And the rest—except for baggage retrieval at Pearson International—was a piece of cake.
Without such planning, crossing international borders can be a nightmare, and you could be stuck on the wrong side of the border until you can come up with acceptable proof. It happens more than you think.
What do you need to do?
First, understand that Canada has no legal requirement that you carry such documentation, nor does it specify which kind of documents you need. Each country has its own rules, which are usually entrenched in the judgment of the border agent you first confront at your destination. They are the people who will look you in the eye and decide whether they believe you.
The key document you need is a letter signed by a parent (preferably both parents—more about this later) that outlines the name, birth place, and date of birth of the child or children travelling with you, their travel destination, dates of travel and return, home address, and proof of their citizenship and home details.
Although the Government of Canada doesn’t necessarily require kids to have their own passports, they do think it advisable, and I consider it essential. One never knows, these days, what can happen on any given trip, and there is no better proof of a child’s citizenship than a passport in their name—and the protection that passport, the property of the Canadian government, affords.
In addition, the parent (or parents) must provide their own contacts—home, phone, email, cell phone, etc. and acknowledgement that the lead traveller (grandparent, relative, or group organizer, if several unrelated kids are travelling together) have the parents’ permission to be in charge of their kids.
What about separated or divorced parents?
Since child abduction is so often committed by estranged parents, it’s best if both parents authorize their children’s travel, even if they are separated or divorced or if only one of them has custodial authority. They may not want to talk to each other, but it’s not that difficult for each to sign the authorization(s) and have their signatures notarized.
Similarly, if the lead traveller is one of the parents, they should have the other parent sign (and notarize) his or her permission for the trip—even if the lead traveller has custodial rights and the non-travelling parent is left behind. This is not the time to stick it to the loser—it’s the kids who matter.
Although you are not legally required to carry such authorization, the Government of Canada nonetheless provides sample letters you can access and fill out online here. Or, if you prefer, you can draft your own letter, using the government sample as a guide, so long as you have all of the information required to identify the children travelling with you, who you are, and that both parents have given you permission for the trip.
One addendum is becoming increasingly important, given the mobility of so many young people: provide a similar letter for your own children (18 or under) if they will be traveling on their own. Many border agents are now on the lookout for teenagers travelling abroad on their own. And that, too, is a good thing.
Planning a family trip? Make sure travel insurance is on your list.