This story took place a few weeks ago, in June, when I was flying home from St. Thomas. No wait -- let me go back further than that, to give you the background.
In case you didn't know, St. Thomas is one of the United States Virgin Islands. As in United States. As in where I am a citizen, where I live, and -- save for those few months in London when I was in college -- where I've always lived.
I've been flying back and forth to the USVI for work for about the last year -- maybe a little more, maybe less. To fly home, you have to go through customs -- fill out a form, show identification, declare what you're bringing into the country. Since I've been there on business, I haven't really been coming back with a lot of souvenirs -- maybe a t-shirt or two for my nephew, a cheap pair of earrings, a shot glass. Not much. And as for the identification, I've shown them my driver's license and, if they ask, my official government ID badge. Usually I pass right through -- occasionally the Homeland Security guys flirt with me.
The last trip home was a nightmare. I had been working nonstop, and was rushing to get home. I booked myself an 8am Saturday morning flight out. Of course, on Friday afternoon, a tropical wave started hitting the island, and the rain had been coming down in sheets for hours. I had to leave the resort before 5:30 to return the rental car and get to the airport, and of course, the shuttle wasn't running to take me from the main building down the hill to the parking lot. So I covered myself up as best as I could with my sweatshirt and ran down the hill in the pouring rain, with two suitcases and a carry on. At the foot of the hill, the water came up past my ankles. When I got in the car, I was drenched. When I got to the airport, before checking-in (but after returning the rental car), I ran into the bathroom to change into dry clothes. I then waited on a very long line to check-in, and an even longer, slower line, to get through customs. My flight is at 8 -- and, by the time I get to the front of the line, it is after 7. I haven't even made it to security yet.
Of course the agent asked for my passport. I don't have my passport. He then asked for my birth certificate. I don't have my birth certificate. I have my driver's license. I have at least two official government IDs. I have my Voter's Registration Card. He tells me that I need to have either a passport or my birth certificate.
In the last year, I have never been asked for my passport or birth certificate. And, as far as I knew, I didn't need either.
The Border Patrol website says:
Q: Do travelers from U.S. territories need to present a passport to enter the United States?
A: No. These territories are a part of the United States. U.S. citizens returning directly from a U.S. territory are not considered to have left the U.S. and do not need to present a passport. U.S. territories include the following: Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Swains Island and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. If the traveler also visited non-U.S. territories, he/she is required to present a passport.
Although U.S. citizens are not required to present a passport upon departure from the U.S. territories, travelers are encouraged to travel with a passport or other proof of citizenship, as they will be asked questions about citizenship and any goods they will be bringing to the U.S. mainland upon their departure from U.S. territories.
But the rules might not be that clear, at least according to a giant poster on the wall, which says:
No passports are required for US Virgin Islands travel.
The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative requiring passports will not affect travel between the United States and its territories. U.S. citizens traveling between the United States, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin islands will continue to be able to use established forms of identification, such as birth certificates and government-issued photo ID, to board flights and for entry. Vaccinations are not required.
The following are usually accepted as Proofs of U.S. Citizenship:
* a valid U.S. passport -or-
* Certified copy of birth certificate plus government issued photo ID -or-
* Official U.S. government document verifying citizenship
* Certificate of citizenship
* Certificate of naturalization
* Consular report of birth abroad of a U.S. Citizen
* Valid photo I.D. (Photo I.D.'s are not applicable for minors up to 16 years of age.)
NOTE: A Voter's registration card is NOT valid proof of U.S. Citizenship.
I tell the agent that I have nothing except what I've shown him. I comment about how going to a U.S. territory is not leaving the U.S. I add "Since when do you need a photo ID and your birth certificate to board a plane in the U.S.?"
He tells me I should have my birth certificate, but it would be better if I just traveled with my passport. I say I do not ordinarily travel with my birth certificate, and do not have my passport with me. This goes around and around in circles. He is getting annoyed with me, and I asked for a supervisor.
Finally he starts typing into his computer. He asks about my business on the island, my employer. When he learns that I am a lawyer, he says, "Of course." Then he asks where I was born. I say "New York City." He says, "Where is that?" I, of course, say "Are you serious?"
He glared at me. He was serious. Dead serious. He types something else into the computer. At this point, I've moved beyond mere petulance to full-force obnoxious smug superiority. So I explain that New York City is, indeed, in the State of New York, which is in the United States of America. He angrily types into the computer, and finally, lets me go. As I'm gathering my stuff to leave, he says, "Next time just bring your passport or your birth certificate."
Lucky for me, I had to race to get to the plane, and kept my mouth shut. Otherwise I'm not sure if I'd have made it home.