A couple of times a year, I get a panicked message from a friend or reader who is about to take an airplane flight with their kids. Suddenly they’ve realized that they have no idea what kind of identification they need for their children to fly, if any. After a decade and a half of flying on hundreds of flights and dozens of airlines with my kids to destinations all around the world, I know this question can certainly be confusing!
In the United States, there are multiple entities that set the official legal rules and regulations governing air travel identification and documentation. Those can include Customs and Border Protection, the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Transportation Security Administration, and each specific airline.
So exactly what documentation is required to board an airplane with kids? As you might imagine, it depends! Here is all the information you need to make sure you have the right identification to travel aboard both domestic and international flights with kids.
Short on Time? Quick Answers in a Nutshell
Children under the age of 18 typically do not need ID to fly on domestic flights within the United States when accompanied by an adult. Airlines may require identification, however, in more unusual circumstances such as with very young infants, lap children, unaccompanied minors, or older teens flying solo. Identification – specifically a passport book but sometimes more – is always required for kids of any age to travel on international flights.
Identification Required for Kids for International Travel
Most travelers usually expect strict identification rules when it comes to international travel. If you are traveling internationally by air the answer to the question of whether kids need ID to fly is pretty simple. Yes! They do!
Not just any ID will suffice. Just as with adults, a passport book is required to fly with kids internationally no matter how young. If you have kids who are United States citizens, getting an official passport can be time-consuming and expensive. In addition, it requires some logistical steps that parents can mess up.
How to Get Passports in the US for Kids
Specifically, the consent of both parents is required for kids under age 16. That usually means both parents need to appear in person at a passport acceptance facility (like many post offices, local government offices, etc.). Alternatively, one parent can appear in person with a notarized statement of consent from the other parent. I got a notarized letter from my husband the last time we applied for our kids because his work schedule made it difficult for him to be available during the limited business hours passport acceptance facilities in our area were open.
Note also that you can’t just easily renew children’s passports by mail like you can for adults. The same in-person application process with both parents present is required. Plus kids under age 16 must renew passports every 5 years, instead of every 10 years for adults.
For that reason, I highly recommend starting the process of obtaining passports for your kids many months in advance of any international travel. After the paperwork is submitted, the process can take 2-3 months for a passport to arrive. Plus, it can often take many weeks before you can get an appointment to even submit the paperwork.
This obviously makes international travel with very young infants especially challenging, as it takes time to first get a birth certificate for the child and then apply for a passport.
Hopefully you are landing on this article in plenty of time to get your paperwork in order for your specific situation. But if not, there may be ways you can get what you need more urgently. You can pay a $60 extra fee to expedite a passport, which can cut several weeks off of standard processing times. And in more urgent situations, there is an even more expedited option available by applying at a passport agency (which can be done if a trip is within 14 days or less).
Special Note about International Land Crossings and Cruises
One reason some travelers misunderstand the air travel rules for kid identification is because the rules for kids crossing land borders and on some cruises can be different. For example, minors who are US citizens can cross into Canada by land with only a birth certificate.
On some closed loop cruises starting and ending in the United States going to destinations like Mexico, Canada, or many Caribbean countries, there are times when both kids and adults can technically travel without a passport using a birth certificate or passport card.
But none of these exceptions apply to international air travel. Don’t mix these rules up!
Child Travel Consent Form
Although a passport book is necessary to travel with kids on international flights, it isn’t necessarily fully sufficient. There are some times that other travel documents may be required – such as a visa for certain countries.
What is even more likely to trip up international travelers is the situation in which a child is traveling with only one parent or is traveling with another adult who isn’t a parent. In many of these circumstances, proof that both parents consent to the specific trip can be required. In these cases, the best practice is to carry a notarized letter of consent for the child to travel.
Some countries have very specific forms or formats that you need to follow. Mexico is one such example and historically has tended to be quite strict. My husband will likely be traveling solo with one of our kids to Mexico for a family wedding in a few months, and we are already planning to get the a letter of consent completed as an extra precaution.
Many countries don’t have clear cut rules that are easy to research. For example, I flew last summer to Italy (first entering the Schengen Area in Frankfurt, Germany) with both of my kids without my husband. I wasn’t able to get completely definitive information as to whether consent was required. As a result, we went ahead and had my husband complete a notarized letter of consent that I kept with me along with a copy of his passport. We weren’t asked to show it, but I breathed easier knowing I had it!
Unfortunately, profiling can and does occur depending on where you are traveling. So parents who don’t share the same last name as their children or who may appear to be another race or ethnicity may find they face extra scrutiny. The best way to avoid any surprises – just or not – is to err on the side of having this document even when it’s not necessarily required.
Identification Required for Kids for Domestic Travel
If you are traveling domestically, the answer to the ID question is a little more complicated but thankfully usually much easier. In most standard circumstances, identification is not required for minors for domestic travel within the USA. There are specific unique situations, however, where it can be.
What Identification is Needed at TSA Checkpoints?
For domestic travel, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will not require you to have an ID for children under age 18 at the security checkpoint.
That said, TSA agents may well talk to your child to confirm their identity and to screen for cases of child abduction. Agents have asked my kids over the years for their names. In some circumstances, they’ve pointed to my husband or me and asked our children who we are. If you have kids who are shy or who take warnings of stranger danger to heart, let them know in advance of your trip that it’s ok for them to speak to these agents and to answer truthfully.
Special Situations Where Kids May Need ID for Domestic Travel
While the TSA won’t require identification for kids under age 18, many airlines have policies in specific circumstances where some form of ID will be required. It’s vital to know about these outlier circumstances so you don’t come to the airport unprepared.
A number of airlines have rules that prohibit or limit newborns from flying. Airline rules differ, with some airlines like Delta prohibiting newborns under 7 days old from flying on any flights. Others set limits only on international travel, including Southwest which limits infants 14 days old or younger from flying on international flights. Most airlines allow young infants under their age limits, however, to fly with a letter of permission from a physician.
If you are traveling with a newborn, it’s highly advised to bring a document like a birth certificate for proof of age. And if you are looking for an exception to an age minimum of any sort, a physician’s letter is essential.
When you are flying with a child who will be sitting in your lap (permitted for kids under age 2), having identification to prove age may be required. Some airlines will allow younger infants to board with no ID, as it’s normally obvious that very small babies are not yet near the maximum age cutoff. Families with older babies toddling and speaking always should carry proof of age no matter what the airline. Airline employees can ask at any time for proof to make sure the child is young enough to travel as a lap child.
If you are flying Southwest Airlines, however, do not leave ID at home no matter what the age of your lap child. Southwest is the only US carrier that absolutely requires identification of any and every lap child regardless of how old they appear. You’ll need to show it at the ticket counter to obtain a boarding verification document (that works like a boarding pass) for the lap child.
Are there some instances where passengers haven’t had to show documentation for their children on Southwest? For sure. But I’ve flown with a lap child on Southwest more than a dozen times, and I can assure you that every time I had to show proof of age, even with a kiddo as young as 4 months! You don’t want to chance this.
What kind of identification works for lap children? A simple copy of a birth certificate will usually suffice. No need to rush to the DMV to get your tot a state-issued ID card.
Birth certificates can, however, can take awhile to obtain after a child is born. If you need to fly with a young infant domestically, most airlines will also accept hospital discharge documentation or vaccination records from a pediatrician’s office. The key is that the document have the child’s date of birth on it. When in doubt, if you cannot obtain a birth certificate, call the airline you are flying beforehand to confirm alternatives.
Unaccompanied Minors & Minors Traveling Solo
Another circumstance in which identification may be required for a child is in the case of children flying alone. Again, each airline’s policy is different.
In this situation, age really matters. All US airlines permit older teens (usually ages 15+ but sometimes younger) to fly solo just like adults. And most of them also allow younger kids (often ages 5-14) to fly as unaccompanied minors by paying a fee for limited supervision by airline employees. Depending on the child’s age and circumstances, different documentation can be required.
For older teens under age 18 flying truly solo and not with an unaccompanied minor program, ID is almost always required. Since many kids in this age range won’t have a driver’s license or official government photo ID yet, some airlines (like United) will accept other forms of identification like a birth certificates or student IDs. Other airlines (like Delta), however, require that 15-17 year olds flying solo have the same kind of photo ID that is required of adults. So if your child doesn’t have a driver’s permit or license yet, you’ll likely need to pack a passport.
Younger kids flying as an unaccompanied minor may need some identification as well. This also varies based on the airline and the circumstance. For example, when my son flew earlier this year as an unaccompanied minor on Southwest, I had to show ID as his parent, but I was not asked to show identification for him. Officially, however, Southwest’s policy is that parents may need to show proof of age for the minor. We probably weren’t asked because I booked under my son’s Rapid Rewards account that includes his date of birth (and he clearly appears to be within the age range of the program).
Most other US airlines won’t ask for ID for unaccompanied minors in straightforward situations, but the important thing to note is that they can. So the safest course of action is to at least carry a birth certificate. I put a birth certificate in my son’s backpack anyway, so we were prepared!
Here are links to the relevant age and ID policies that may apply to minors flying solo or as unaccompanied minors on each major US airline:
- Alaska Airlines
- American Airlines
- Delta Airlines
- Frontier Airlines
- Hawaiian Airlines
- JetBlue Airways
- Southwest Airlines
- Spirit Airlines
- United Airlines
Additional Identification Air Travel Tips
- When in doubt, bring it: I know from lots of digging around fine print on the internet that it’s sometimes impossible to get a definitive answer about identification. When in doubt, I highly recommend you err on the side of packing more than you need rather than less. A passport book is the gold standard. For domestic travel an original birth certificate (with the raised seal) can be helpful in many circumstances too.
- Keep extra copies on the cloud: Back in the pre-internet old days of travel, most of us traveled with extra passport copies in a separate bag in case we lost the original. In the digital age, having backups is easier than ever. I keep a copy on the cloud of passports and birth certificates for everyone in the family. That way, I can easily access everything on my phone in cases of emergency.
- Take extra precautions in case of child custody disputes and divorce: It’s crucial in situations of divorce or shared custody that parents have all of their legal ducks in a row before boarding a plane with their child, even for a simple hop across state lines. As a former attorney myself, I strongly suggest you consult your own legal counsel. Always make sure travel is permitted and that you know what additional documentation you need to bring to avoid any potential issues.