I can’t count the number of flights I have taken; surely it must be in the hundreds after all my years of traveling and living abroad. But one thing is for sure: the vast majority of these flights were international flights. Because I left the US when I was 18, and since I traveled very little before that – an occasional visit to grandparents in the Midwest, or a childhood visit to Disney World – I had only taken domestic US flights a handful of times.
For me, I’ve always associated getting on a plane with going to another country. When I lived in London, compact and multinational Europe was at my doorstep and I’d hop on flights to diverse destinations from Amsterdam to Zagreb. In Liberia, there simply were no domestic commercial flights, so any time I boarded a plane, I was by definition going out of the country.
So every time I’m preparing for air travel, my mental check list of things to do always starts with “Do I have my passport? Check.” But the US, it turns out, is really darn big. And you can fly for quite a long time in any number of directions without even coming close to an international border.
So when I flew to Texas last month, the first thing I thought as I was packing my bag was: “I can’t forget my passport.” But wait a minute. I’m not going abroad. I’m only going to another state. Do I even need my passport? I asked my friend and she said I could just use my driver’s license. Dubious, I asked her, “Are you sure that is going to work?” She laughed at me.
I had never before gotten on a plane with just my driver’s license. Somehow it just didn’t seem legit. I mean, a driver’s license seems so much easier to fake or falsify than a passport. It surely is. But, the issue is that only 35% of Americans actually have passports. If you’re surprised by that figure, it has gone up substantially since 1989, when under 3% of Americans were passport holders, according to Forbes. That increase is due largely to the post-9/11 requirements for US citizens to have passports to travel to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda; previously, Americans could go to those countries by presenting only a driver’s license or other photo ID.
Still feeling nervous about potentially getting turned back at the airport, I decided to go ahead and pack my passport as a backup. As I shuffled to the front of the security queue, I had my driver’s license ready, and my passport in my back pocket. When I proffered my little piece of plastic in response to “Boarding pass and photo ID please, ma’am,” it worked just fine. Ha. Imagine that.