Travelling with a baby is rarely a picnic, but travelling internationally can push the stress-o-meter to the max pretty quickly. There are the joys of figuring out which baby things you can leave behind as you stare into your compact suitcase and anticipating the impact of jet lag on your already interrupted sleep cycle. On the plane, you and your little family get to be the people nobody wants to sit near. And does the stroller even count as checked baggage?
In the chaos of planning your big trip, it can be easy to forget that your new baby also needs a passport. But doing so comes at a high price: running out of time and jeopardizing your trip or the ultimate nightmare scenario of turning up at the airport and discovering at the last moment that your dream week in Paris will not be happening this time. To avoid a sticky situation, here’s what you need to know about getting your little tyke a grown-up travel document.
Give yourself several weeks—if not longer—to complete the process, says Nicole Wears, who runs the blog TravelingCanucks.com. “Plan ahead, and give yourself plenty of time from start to finish,” she says. “If you’re travelling in March, start in December.”
This might seem like too much runway (pardon the pun), but it’s better to be safe than sorry. There are also photos to be taken (we’ll get to those in a minute) and the very real possibility that, if you make a small mistake somewhere along the line, you’ll have to do it all over again.
To save time, it’s best to hand in the application in person at a passport office rather than mail it in. This can save you about 10 days, according to the Government of Canada website.
The government also warns would-be travellers not to finalize plans until the passport process is complete. This may be impossible to do, but starting early increases the odds that things will go smoothly.
Renewing an adult passport can be relatively easy, but getting one for the first time for a child involves paperwork that you’ll likely need to hunt down beforehand.
To begin, you’ll need proof of citizenship for your child. Typically, this means a birth certificate, but you need to make sure it’s the long-form version (with the parents’ names on it) because the government also requires proof of parentage for a first passport. Birth certificates are handled provincially, so the process may differ slightly depending on where you live, but you’ll need to have already registered your baby’s birth (which some people tend to put off for a while). The time needed to do all this will vary depending on where you live, so give yourself plenty of breathing room.
The alternative to a birth certificate is a federally issued Canadian citizenship certificate, which must be applied for separately. If your baby is adopted, you’ll need court-issued adoption papers with names of the adoptive parents.
And in most circumstances, both parents need to sign the application form. This is a team effort!
You’d think that the great bureaucracy would be flexible on the photo requirements for babies considering that a) most babies kind of look the same to people who aren’t their parents; and b) their appearance changes so fast that by the time the passport expires in five years (and likely well before), they will look nothing like their picture.
Alas, passport photos have to meet exacting standards, which virtually ensures that the photo shoot will be the most unpleasant step in the passport process.
According to the government, the photo must: show a neutral facial expression (with mouth closed, looking straight into the camera); have no shadows; and show the face and top of the shoulders squared to the camera. It must also be taken against a plain white or light-coloured background, with nothing else but the subject in the photo.
This is a fair bit to handle if you’re a fully functional adult. For an infant who can’t sit up on their own and doesn’t take verbal instruction, it makes for a fun afternoon.
In addition to keeping your baby from crying, smiling or falling asleep while looking at the camera, you can’t have anything else in the photo, which makes it tough to sneak in a hand for back support.
Wears suggests calling ahead to make sure that the photographer has experience photographing babies. A good one should have a few tricks up their sleeve to get a good picture, such as placing the baby on a white surface and photographing from above. Another MacGyver move is to drape a car seat in a white sheet and take the picture of your baby sitting upright. Wears says she supported her infants by holding their back and neck underneath the back of their shirt so that her hand wasn’t visible to the camera.
“Both our kids were three months old when we applied to get their first passport photos and they kept falling asleep for the photos,” says Wears. She gently pressed a cold cloth on their cheeks to help them stay alert and open their eyes for the photos.
In practice, a slight smile or droopy eyes may get by, but getting it wrong means having the photo rejected and no passport, so book plenty of time to get it done right. And don’t forget to get a guarantor to sign the back!
Beyond the documentation and photo, there are a few small details to keep in mind. A child’s passport doesn’t need a signature, and a parent unthinkingly signing it will make the whole thing invalid. This feels like the kind of thing that could happen in the last-minute panic of trip preparation, and it does happen, so be careful.
As well, supporting documents must be originals. It may seem risky to send a birth certificate in the mail, but you will get it back. If you’re nervous, submit the application in person, which reduces the amount of time that you’ll be without the documents.
Finally, this is more of a travel tip than a passport tip, but it bears mentioning: If you’re married and travelling with your baby but not your spouse, you’ll need a travel consent letter—basically a note from your spouse stating that it’s OK that you’re travelling with your child alone.
Happily, the relief when that tidy government-issued document arrives will more than make up for the stress of getting it. And then you can look forward to that eight-hour transatlantic red-eye with an incontinent infant that has yet to experience air pressure changes.