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A Little Disturbing … No Officials Ask for My Minor’s Travel Documents

Now that Ana and I are firmly back from our six months in Southeast Asia, I feel compelled to reflect back on some of the technicalities of traveling. There will be more stories, but some aspects preparing for our trip were far more stressful for me than needed…and once on the road a bit more disturbing. You see, in the weeks leading up to the big trip with my niece Ana, I was a nervous ball of energy rocketing around St. Petersburg. Ana had never left the country before, so I orchestrated all the paperwork for her passport and arranged the documents to leave the country with a minor who is not my child.

I stressed, I worried with my friends at weekly dinners about glitches we might encounter, and I planned out my speech to the immigration officials about our six month adventure homeschooling throughout Southeast Asia. I had it all scripted at the passport counter: They would raise an eyebrow at how very unconventional we are by leaving on this trip. I would laugh and talk about my years of traveling and writing. Ana would pitch in a happy “yay!” for good measure. The officials would look at the paperwork signed by her parents, ask her a few questions, then stamp us on our way.

traveling with a minor documents

The documents I took with us to legally travel around the world with my niece Ana, a minor child not my own.

The reality?

No one ever questioned us. Not one single question. I flew out of the United States on an international flight to Thailand, via South Korea, and no one blinked an eye when I passed over the passport for a child who:

  • Does not share my last name.
  • Is quite obviously a minor at just 11 years-old.
  • Has a passing resemblance to me (eye color and race is about it).
  • Is leaving her country of residence.
  • Was sullen and pretty unhappy when we first left.
  • Is not my child.

I have crossed international borders and entered and exited five countries with my niece (the US, Thailand, Laos, Burma, and Cambodia), and never once did anyone check to make sure I had the right to travel with her.

This fact disturbs me. A lot. So much, in fact, I will likely keep her passport locked up in my parent’s bank safe once we return because if I can so easily leave with her, what’s to stop anyone else from leaving the US with her?

I remember reading about some new laws in the US, about both parents having to show consent for a minor to leave the country as a way to stop custody disputes from ending poorly. I never paid much attention to this sort of news, since it had little relevancy to me, but I always assumed those people traveling with children were at least lightly questioned, particularly if they were not traveling as a happy little nuclear family, with mom, dad, kids and perfectly matching last names.

Clearly I was wrong though, because no one gives two hoots.

Okay, to be fair, the very last month, when we crossed into Cambodia overland from Thailand, one official working on our Cambodian visas walked over and asked if Ana was my daughter. I thought, “thank god!” but responded, “no, she’s my niece.”

And with that he turned and walked away, then came back moments later with our passports (and our shiny new Cambodian visas inside), and gave us a large smile as he shooed us on our way.

Air Bagan plane on tarmac

Ana and the GotPassport.org family get ready to board our Air Bagan flight from Chiang Mai to Yangon, Burma.

When we sent away to the Burmese embassy for our visas, I even tried to give them my paperwork, and the woman said “we just need your passports, nothing else.”

Here’s the thing, I’m not much of an alarmist, so when we first left the US and immigration gave us surly, uncurious permission to board our international flight, I chalked it up to a fluke. And honestly I was still recovering from the final days of packing stress, so it didn’t phase me much. Then, as we began crossing borders via bus, boat, plane, and train…it hit me that no one is asking questions and caring about the situation. I printed out paperwork in triplicate and stashed it in three different bags, yet just yesterday I unpacked it here at home, and it is still as crisp and unused as the day I pulled it from my printer seven months ago.

Frankly, I don’t know if this is normal. I had assumptions going into this trip that crossing borders would be a chore, but a necessary one to ensure the safety of our children. I wanted this to be the case to justify my faith in our system.

backpacking in bangkok

After 6 months on the road, my niece and I packed and ready for the airport after a delicious street food pit-stop in Bangkok, just before our final flight home-ward bound!

Before I left, I had planned to write a post along the lines of “here’s what you need to travel with a minor not your own.” Instead, I’ll note that this is what I brought with me and have never once used:

In case you also feel a need for over preparedness, those are links to view blank versions of the files I used, linked to a shared Google document; I modified the documents from other sources I found online and tweaked for them international travel and my unique situation. I am not a lawyer, nor do I have any superpowers to create official documents. In fact, I designed these for my specifics, so use at your own risk, ask your lawyer to look over them, and all that jazz. In other news, I had each of the notarized ones done twice, one for each parent, and the Guardianship document in particular is unique because of the length of our travels, and how young my niece was during our trip. I felt better for having it, but might not have done one for a shorter trip…really comes down to a personal judgment call and research on the current laws before you leave!

As for the rest of it, I just had to blog about it because even now as I try to adjust my expectations and assumptions, it still strikes me as odd that if I have a kid’s passport in my hand it’s that easy to simply disappear off the grid.

What’s your take on this? All I have is my experience to hold this against, but have you ever been questioned when traveling with your own minors or someone elses’ ? Do you think the border controls are too lax? Am I overreacting here?

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  • http://www.facebook.com/leighshulman Leigh Shulman

    I completely understand why you find that disturbing. While, yes, it might have made your travels easier in some ways, it most definitely makes me wonder.

    By contrast, we have to have Lila’s birth certificate stamped apostille in order to leave Argentina. This is mainly because they think we’re Argentine residents. When we were just tourists, though, no one asked questions.Now that I think about it, no one really asked questions when we went into Panama, Chile, Costa Rica, Canada or Europe.

    • ShannonOD

      Wow, that is pretty tight security in Argentina, it makes sense if they think you’re local, it’s a great protection to have in place to make sure children stay in the country if they’re supposed to! Interesting that if we look like tourists though, no one looks twice! Hmm.. thanks for weighing in Leigh, and glad to see it’s not just me :)

  • André Malenfant

    Hey Shannon, I agree this is disturbing. Especially going outside of the U.S. I wouldn’t have been surprised in SEA but in a western country? While you had no issues, I would still go through all the hassle to prepare the documents. I have a feeling the authorities would have suddenly realized the situation if you had a bad luck and it would have given them a way out, if needed. Better safe then sorry…

    B.T.W. Nice meeting you in Bangkok! I did not realize at the time that it was the end of a 6 months trip. Ana must have had the time of her life!

    • ShannonOD

      You’re right about having the documents, there’s no doubt that if I had one thing out of place that’s precisely when I would have been stopped at immigration or had some health issues (Murphy’s Law and all of that).  It was so great to meet you, and yes, we were right at the end of our trip, so it’s odd but nice to be home now. Hope the rest of your travels are going well! :)

  • secretcognition

    Sorry this is a little off topic, but are you sad now that you’re home? Miss traveling? Do you plan on hitting the road anytime soon?

    • ShannonOD

      It’s always a mixed bag of emotions when I come home, but it’s nice. I know I’ll be off traveling again shortly, so I like to enjoy the time with my family! :)

  • http://travelsofadam.com Adam

    Interesting to read! I remember when I went to Mexico City with my Dad as a minor, my Mom had to provide a letter of consent so that it didn’t look he was stealing me away or something. And he was my own father, even, but it was required and checked by the airline staff.

    This was already nearly 20 years ago, though, but I remember it being an issue at immigration. Surprised to hear it’s apparently gotten easier and not more difficult to travel with a minor who isn’t your own.

    • ShannonOD

      So surprising that the US is that spotty that they would check sometimes but not others (particularly if it was a policy 20 years ago!). I was a bit disappointed in the system and hopefully it was a fluke on the US side, and I’ll give the benefit of the doubt that they still check single parents like they did with your mum! :)

  • http://www.themodernnomad.com/ The Modern Nomad

    Wow, I assumed much the same as you, that it would require extensive documentation. There has been a few high-profile cases in Sweden of fathers taking a kid abroad as a way to take back custody from the mother. Sad sad business. Considering how much care officials take when it comes to nail clippers and water bottles, this strikes me as bizarre. Thanks for bringing it up.

    • ShannonOD

      It’s disappointing that there are so many controls in place against our liquids but as you noted, the controls on minors just don’t seem to be as adhered to…hopefully Sweden starts looking closer…I think it’s too much to think that the US will do a whole lot. Thanks for weighing in on this! :)

  • jillacox

    I’m not too surprised. She looks like she could be your daughter to me. Officials probably assumed the same. I would expect the US immigration to ask questions though. They can be so annoying and extremely cautious at times.

    When parents take their own kids out of the country do they have to prove it’s their child? Because how would you do that? My mom and I have different last names and I don’t know how she’d prove I belong to her (if I was twenty years younger or something!). Do parents travel with copies of birth certificates?

    • ShannonOD

      I guess Asia didn’t surprise me so much, as you said, she looks like she could be mine. But it’s leaving the US that bothered me, that I had to have the paperwork, so obviously it’s a policy, but not one that’s enforced. As for birth certificates, yes, you would need to have it particularly if the names differed so that the “Consent to Leave the Country” document could be matched up to the notarized parental approval signature! At least, that’s what the government sites say! Thanks for weighing in on this Jill! :)

  • http://www.livecollarfree.com/ James Schipper

    Clearly, immigration officials the world over aread your blog, and already knew the scoop ;-)

    • ShannonOD

      Hah! Exactly James, they are clearly on top of it and a step ahead of me. World famous I tell ya ;-)

  • http://expatedna.com/ Edna

    That’s so interesting, and I agree — a little disturbing! What’s the point of making citizens jump through all these hoops to have paperwork before you go (I remember my mom tried to get my little sister’s passport renewed when she was just a toddler, and we were told to come back with either my dad there in person or a death certificate; to make sure my mom wasn’t trying to abduct my sister), when they’re not even going to check it??

    • ShannonOD

      It’s frustrating! Like your mom, I had to jump through hoops to have both parents off of work so we could all go down to the post office together, with valid ids, paperwork, my niece — it was a lot of work timing it all, and then nada on the other end once we leave! I keep hoping it was a fluke, but most other travelers weighing in say that there were checks in place 20 years ago, but now adays no one is asked..yikes! :-/   Thanks for weighing in on this Edna.

  • http://www.travelnlass.com/ TravelnLass

    Most disturbing indeed.  Especially when you consider how much trafficking in children goes on in the world today (i.e. well, no wonder!)

    Come to think of it, I dragged my 2 young daughters to Mexico and all over Europe years ago – with, as I recall, only their passports and no consent document from their father.

    • ShannonOD

      Yikes! See, I thought that maybe if I was headed to Mexico (which seems like the more typical starting point if you were trying to kidnap a kid quickly out of the country) that they might have been more on alert!

  • Andi Perullo

    I’m truly appalled. I almost feel like you should try to contact the US government about this!

    • ShannonOD

      I’ve pondered it…it appears systemic, but then I also wonder if I just caught the US person on an off day? Asia is a whole other story, they don’t blink an eye at most anything. Will think about the right way to proceed! :)

  • http://twitter.com/awanderingsole Laura

    To be honest, I never gave it any thought as I read about you and Ana traveling together… probably b/c I don’t have children, nor have I been in this situation. But now that you’ve brought it to light what paperwork you needed to take with you, it is shocking actually that no one asked for it. Or even asked you “Is this your daughter?” (except for that one guy, but you think they would have asked you in the US!). 

    • ShannonOD

      That was my big issue, that I had to have all of that paperwork, but then no one asked for it, or about the situation. Even if we looked exactly alike and shared a last name, I expected they would ask to make sure I was kidnapping her from a bad custody situation! Ah well, goes to show we have some holes in our system…

  • purplekat99

    Very interesting! And definitely scary on how easy it is.
    When my (nuclear) family drove from California and entered Canada via Detroit back in 1995, none of us (my parents, me (age 14) and younger sister (age 12)) had passports yet they gave us tons of shit at the border because apparently child kidnapping was way in back then. Probably didn’t help much that our car had Cali tags and we were entering Canada via Michigan, but still! It was weird. Thankfully we didn’t have any issues coming back into the US (via Vermont/New Hampshire!!) a week later.

    • ShannonOD

      That was probably pretty suspicious, but it likely helped that you and your sister were old enough to speak up. And crossing that same border without passports is impossible now! But at the same time, I bet that questioning you got was a whole lot more effective than the blindness that a passport now causes in officials! Thanks for weighing in! :)

  • Rishi

    Scary thought indeed. Reaffirms my belief in never wanting to procreate and bringing a child in this scary world.
    On a side note it is surprising to hear that you’re back in North America. For a short while I’ll be on the same continent and then I fly back on the 12th of June. 

    • ShannonOD

      It was time to return home with my niece, so I am home for part of the summer, but will be jumping around the US a bit. Safe travels next month and you;ll have to keep me posted on where you end up!  :)

      • Rishi

        Your country is huge…and beautiful. I’d imagine discovering its wild side will keep you busy. Good thing about it though is no worrying about flights and passports and such.

        I will stay in touch, either here or through emails. 

  • http://twenty-somethingtravel.com/ Steph

    Crazy! Mike is trying to take his 13 year old brother to Canada this sumer and is assembling hte paperwork. I do think it’s a bit disturbing if nobody checks!

    • ShannonOD

      How fun! His brother will love it, and the paperwork was really daunting at first, but came together…not sure in his circumstance, but those two documents I posted are pretty much what I found out you need. So if he tweaks them for him, it should work! Hope they have a wonderful time exploring Canada! :)

  • http://www.lettersfromthelarmours.com/ Kirsty

    Interesting. My 2 kids and I have different surnames and different nationalities and I frequently travel with them without my husband – we’ve travelled so much they’re both on their 2nd or 3rd passports and I’ve been stopped once only – that was going into the UK – which is the country of MY passport… they didn’t want to see any of my documentation though (I carry their birth certs and my marriage cert – although none are notorised) but they did warn me that I should be careful – but that was on one trip – we’ve been in and out of the UK half a dozen times since and nothing….. oh, and my girls look NOTHING like me too!!! 

    • ShannonOD

      That is so frustrating, particularly when they don’t share a passport nationality, last names, or looks! It’s alarming to think how easy children could be trafficked with these lack policies…I’m surprised the UK didn’t have more to say, they “interrogate” me when I come in solo with my US passport sometimes–seems like their more concerned with immigration issues than child safety! :-/

  • http://twitter.com/disposablehomes Ivy Jelisavac

    You’re not overreacting. Ironic that I read this after watching a documentary on child trafficking in South East Asia… I find this disturbing, too. I just came back from Ghana, and before the trip everyone was all “You need your yellow fever shot otherwise they’ll never ever let you back to Europe!” – nobody ever asked to see it. And both my friend and I had forgotten there were razors in our hand luggage, didn’t seem to attract any attention either. Yay international security.

    • ShannonOD

      That is so frustrating Ivy! It just peeves that there are all of these random rules (like throw away my nail clippers) but then methods that are supposed to be in place for ensuring health and child safety are rarely enforced! On the up side, hope you had a wonderful visit to Ghana, I would love to go there :) 

  • adventurerob

    Great post Shannon, I would have thought checking a passport and questioning the surnames would be routine. It seems the world is so hung up on terrorists being on their planes, they have forgotten child kidnapping could ever be an issue.

    • ShannonOD

      Thanks Rob, it’s really shocking the amount of negligence comparatively, people in the comments noted that it was really difficult a couple decades ago, so it’s shocking that it’s gotten easier! Hope you are well :)

  • http://solofriendly.com Gray

    I’m with you, Shannon, I find this very alarming. And also more than a little annoying, when I think about the hassle people get from the TSA here in the US for NO good reason at all, but nobody bats an eye about an adult taking a child who is not their own out of the country? Our world is so screwed up.

    • ShannonOD

      That’s what gets me the most, the level of concern TSA has over every single possible liquid in my bag (including my lipgloss!) but yet nothing on the kid front. It’s so frustrating and yet I feel powerless :-/

  • Alamogordo Q. Cultivar

    Everyone is a kidnapper, child molester, racist, terrorist, witch, spy, etc – didn’t you know that?

  • http://www.vickyflipfloptravels.com/ Vicky

    God, that’s so worrying! Really, really scary that you can cross so many borders without question! 

    • ShannonOD

      That’s what gets me, even if they don’t check documents, at least ask some cursory questions to show you care. Thanks for weighing in on it!

  • http://www.secretdiaryofacampcounselor.com/ Lucyjharper

    I can’t believe you managed to cross from Thailand and Cambodia etc without needing to prove anything. Really, really worrying when you think about all the missing kids in the world…

    • ShannonOD

      It frustrates me even to this day to think about it..so much apathy on such a serious issue. Thanks for weighing in Lucy.

      • Alamogordo Q. Cultivar

        Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the CHILDREN!!

        In reality, kidnappers and child molesters are not roaming in hordes looking for victims, like a few collapsing governments in the West would like you to believe (so you don’t notice where the real problems are). And, even if they were, a border guard is going to do more harm than good by treating everyone with equal suspicion.

        Their instincts are actually pretty good, and if they thought something might be wrong, they would have tried to figure out what it is. You must be a decent person who’s not involved in any mischief, and that’s why they didn’t strip search you. Your experience is an example of what went right. Have some humility and give them credit for being better at their jobs than you are.

        I’m sure you would think differently about this if you were locked up for a few days while the authorities did a thorough job of checking to make sure you’re not a potential criminal. It happens. It used to only happen to men, but it’s happening to women and children now too.

        It reminds me of how Americans so zealously tried to force people to be good for their own benefit during the first prohibition era, that they ended up killing thousands of innocent people in the process. In the end, everybody came back to their senses and realized that a few isolated miscreants are not nearly as bad as an entire society destroying itself with yet another inquisition.

        Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.

        • ShannonOD

          Hmm, some good points to be sure, I know that we likely didn’t hit on some of the trigger points (I’ve gotten questioned pretty intensely coming back from say the Middle East, but Thailand is a bit more middle of the road destination). The bulk of my issue though lies in the sheer NUMBER of official documents I had to have notarized to do this trip. The US procedures are in place and became an issue years ago in custody battles more than stranger-kidnappings…and that is still a very real problem. Even if they thought I was her mom, to leave the country you’re supposed to have double consent on a minor as a flat-out policy…and I don’t think that’s a bad policy to enforce (and it doesn’t remotely compare to prohibition, I’m sorry). So, yes, I am glad we weren’t interrogated, but it’s also a bit more plain to see how the handful of cases every year of one parent disappearing over a border happen.

          Cheers and thanks for weighing in on it!

  • http://backpacking-travel-blog.com/ Samuel & Audrey

    Maybe they already know you from your popular travel blog :)

    • ShannonOD

      Heh heh, yes, that could be, I’ll go with that story and it makes me feel like a rockstar! ;-)

  • Arianwen

    Wouldn’t it be great if the rules for international travel remained consistent no matter where you went?! Sometimes they don’t ask for any documentation and others want proof of onward travel. It’s a real nuisance and something that should change in line with the increasing numbers of people who travel these days.

    • ShannonOD

      It would be so nice if they were all the same!! It can be so frustrating to have so many pieces of paperwork to juggle…or even worse to have no security at all! Thanks for weighing in :)

  • Tom

    Interesting.  We’re about to let our 18-year-old son go to his other country (he’s a dual citizen) for ~2 years, where he won’t be an adult until he’s 21.  We have appointed an uncle as a temporary care giver (using wording local to that country), specifying what can (health care arrangements under our insurance), and can’t (going into debt) be done.  We’ll be there for some of the time, and all parties are on good terms with each other. We’re curious how this will play out.

    But, in your case, I am looking at the photos in your posting, and wondering what an official, proficient in behavioral profiling, would think.  I certainly don’t see anything in her face that looks like she’s being trafficked. How much tension, worry, apathy/pokerface (burying emotions) do you see on that face?  She’s loving it, and those around her. I suspect that vibe is getting through to the officials, who have probably experienced trafficking regularly. (A friend deals in this issue in SE Asia.  That certainly doesn’t make me any less naive on the subject, but I have paid attention to the issue..)

    I also have some experience with immigration and customs officials in SE Asia.  In my experience, they quietly patrol places like baggage claim, checking body language and luggage.  They will then approach someone they have questions about, well before that person reaches official control points.  When I had extra baggage because of a move into a SE Asian country, they quickly approached me and calmly asked if they could look at my stuff.  I showed them my appointment letter and non-immigrant (pre work-permit) visa, and they thanked me and moved on.  Later, when I brought in the family cat, I had all the injections and papers.  I felt the need to rustle up someone at the red customs lane – and they just said “nice kitty” and waved me on.  They had, almost certainly, checked me (and the cat) out several minutes prior to that and already had determined that we were OK to enter.

    • ShannonOD

      That’s really intriguing Tom, and I appreciate you taking the time to lay out some of what goes on behind the scenes. Now that you mention it, the only time I realized that everyone was being scoped out long before customs was coming into Miami from Honduras…and I attributed it to the fact that I was flying in from a high-risk drug country….but it occurs to me now that perhaps it is there all the time but more in the background!

      Your situation with your son is interesting…I can’t imagine what your son must think…he has finally earned adulthood, but now has a whole new cultural dynamic to work through! At the same token, it sounds like the paperwork is pretty specific, and knowing boundaries is really the key step (like hey by the way, no debt). So much good luck with that move, he’s a lucky guy to have dual-citizenship and the opportunity to live in both countries! :)

  • Rebecca Clark

    Just sent my 13 year old daughter off to Australia and back unaccompanied without an adult. Glad we got the notarized parental permission letter just in case but… I agree with your assessment… no one asked for it.  She just came back yesterday.

    • ShannonOD

      Wow, off alone at 13 and no questions…eep! Did you have to arrange to have someone meeting her on the other side and all of that? Glad her trip went safely and I hope she had a grand adventure :)

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