Last updated on May 25, 2020
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Official copy of the minor’s birth certificate.
- Parental Permission to Travel Outside the US with a Minor (notarized)
- Temporary Guardianship and Medical Authorization (notarized)
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 else’s ? Do you think the border controls are too lax? Am I overreacting here?