nogales deconcini border crossing

Does a U.S. Citizen Need a Passport to Visit Nogales?


This is one of the most common questions that we receive, and for good reason.

A requirement for all U.S. citizens to have a passport or border crossing card to re-enter the United States after traveling outside of the country was announced by the U.S. Department of State on June 1, 2009.

Since then, the policy has created confusion among travelers and those who must try to enforce it (since it is not legal to deny a U.S. citizen entry to the country), and has had a devastating effect on the economies of border areas like Ambos Nogales.

And from the time the policy was implemented, we have not heard any news reports about tourists turned away at the border for the lack of a passport, forced to spend their days wandering the streets of the Nogales tourism district, drinking margaritas at the Salon Regis or Fray Marcos, eating tacos dorados from a corner food cart and sleeping on a park bench in Plaza Pesquiera. That is because it has not happened.

The passport requirement was purportedly implemented as a measure to stem international terrorism and prevent undesirables from entering the country, although cynics may believe that rather than having a practical effect at the border its implementation was more of a move by the State Department to artificially increase demand for its services and therefore justify an increase in its staffing and budget. And of course, to raise some money from selling the “required” government documents.

Whatever the reason, it has not been enforced because it is not enforceable, especially along the southern U.S. border with Mexico. In practice, a U.S. citizen who does not have a passport is asked to present a valid government-issued photo identification, such as a driver’s license.

In fact, several months ago CBP added a sign on one of its pedestrian lines for “Drivers Licenses and Birth Certificates” at the DeConcini Port of Entry in Nogales. If no identification is presented, that person will most likely be detained until his or her identity can be ascertained.

At the discretion of the Customs and Border Protection official, they may run a background check or detain the person for further questioning. And that federal background check includes the discovery of any outstanding warrants in any jurisdiction, so if you have outstanding warrants and decide to cross the border from Nogales, Sonora into Nogales, Arizona, you can expect to be turned over to local law enforcement authorities.

So, what we have told people who ask about whether they need a passport, is that they will not be turned away for the lack of a passport or border crossing card, but not having one can delay and potentially complicate your re-entry into the United States.

And last week, after receiving yet another email from a woman in Green Valley who wants to visit Nogales, Mexico with a relative when he visits, I sent the usual response.

She responded to thank me, and said that she had called the CBP office in Nogales to ask them the question. What did they tell her? “Just bring a driver’s license.”