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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Necessary Documents when Traveling with a Child

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Last revision: August 1st, 2019
Last revision:
Category: Daily Life

Traveling with children, whether for winter or summer vacations, school or church field trips, visiting grandparents or other relatives for a long weekend, or going with a choir or band to perform, can be a great experience for kids and families. Children traveling abroad continues to become more common as we embrace living in a global community with myriad cultures and opportunities for learning. However, this travel often happens without both parents or legal guardians of the children present to accompany them. In these situations, it requires additional preparation and planning to be sure that the travel goes smoothly and enjoyably, even if both parents are not present. This guide will discuss all of the considerations and necessary documents that children should have when traveling without one or both of their parents or legal guardians so they can rest easy knowing they are fully prepared.

Who is considered a minor?

Though groups or families may travel with children of all ages, it is only children known as "minors" who require this additional preparation and whom will be discussed by this guide. The term "minor" is used to refer to any individual who has not yet reached the age of majority and is not yet legally considered an adult. Generally, the age of majority is 18 years old, however this does vary a bit from state to state (19 in Nebraska and Alabama, 21 in Mississippi). Since children under this age are still developing, both mentally and physically, they aren't considered capable of handling the same rights or responsibilities as mature adults. For instance, minors don't have the right to vote, own property, consent to medical treatment, sue or be sued, or enter into certain types of contracts.

Minors are considered to be under the care of at least one parent or guardian until they reach the age of majority or otherwise become emancipated. Further, minors are subject to different laws, guidelines, and legal procedures than adults. For example, minors accused of criminal conduct might not be charged as adults or have to face criminal consequences at all since they've been deemed to not have the full capacity and capability as adults. For this reason, children who are minors require special consideration and protection by the law and by their parents or legal guardians who are able to act on their behalf.

When traveling without both parents or legal guardians, one of the most important documents a child should have is a Child Travel Consent Form. This document is a letter written and signed by any parents who aren't present authorizing the travel. The letter acts as explanation and proof to any border officials, law enforcement, or other authorities who may be concerned that the parent or guardian not present with the traveling minor is aware of the situation and consents to the child's travel without them.

Who needs a child travel consent form?

Common situations when a Child Travel Consent Form would be especially necessary include:

  • Separated, divorced, or unmarried parents with only one of the parents traveling with the child, particularly across state lines or out of the country
  • Children traveling with teachers, counselors, or chaperones for a school, church, or camp field trip
  • A child being cared for temporarily by a nanny or babysitter and there is the possibility they may travel during that time
  • Grandparents or other relatives or family friends traveling with children without their parents present

Child Travel Consent forms are especially important for parents or guardians who are separated or divorced and have a custody order in place. In most states, it is a crime to take a child from their parent with the intent to interfere with that parent's physical custody of the child, even if the taker also has custody rights. This crime is commonly referred to as "custodial interference." If a parent without physical custody, who may or may not have visitation rights, removes a child from -- or refuses to return a child to -- the parent with physical custody, it is considered kidnapping or child concealment in addition to custodial interference. Federal and state laws have been passed to prosecute and punish parents guilty of this type of kidnapping, which is a felony in over 40 states. So, any miscommunication or misunderstanding about custody could lead to very serious consequences for the parent involved if an official believes the parent does not actually have the other parent's permission to travel with the child. A Child Travel Consent Form makes it clear that both parents are on the same page and the traveling parent is not attempting to interfere with the non-traveling parent's custody rights.

For parents who are unmarried, separated, or divorced and have a custody agreement in place, it is often a good idea to bring the full custody agreement or court order along when traveling with their child. This document can provide more information about the particulars of their custody arrangement to any concerned officials and demonstrates the official nature of their agreement. However, this document is often long and detailed, so a busy border official might not take the time to read through the whole thing. For that reason, it's important to bring this in addition to the Child Travel Consent form so the official is able to get a summary of the situation from that Consent letter.

Having a Child Travel Consent Form is particularly crucial when traveling very long distances or with younger children. Border agents or other officials are concerned with protecting the most vulnerable, so they are especially likely to inquire about children traveling overseas or very young children traveling who are not able to speak or fully advocate for themselves due to their tender age. That being said, having this letter is recommended for traveling with any minors, even the most obstinate and independent teenagers, just to be safe.

What's included in a child travel consent form?

It is important that the Consent Form include all of the information necessary to make it clear that the parent or guardian is aware of and consents to the child's travel plans. A Child Travel Consent Form includes the following information:

  • Information identifying the child traveling, include full legal name, birth date, and location of their birth
  • If traveling abroad, the child's passport number
  • Whether the travel will be domestic (i.e. in the United States) or international
  • Name of the person or group the child will be traveling with, if applicable
  • Contact information for the person traveling with and supervising the child, if applicable
  • Destinations to which the child will be traveling
  • Start and end date of the trip
  • Description of any of the child's allergies and/or special medical needs
  • Full names and contact information for any parents or legal guardians who will be signing the Consent Form

By including all of this important information, any official looking at the letter will get a full picture of the situation and will be more likely to be assured that everything is in order and the traveling child is safe. Once the Consent Form has been completed, it should be signed by any and all of the child's parents or legal guardians who will not be present with the child during the travel.

In a perfect world, all traveling would be a smooth, easy, and pain-free experience. Unfortunately, accidents and emergencies often happen during travel, especially when traveling with children, and so it is important to be prepared for those unfortunate circumstances. Though a Child Travel Consent Form is an important and useful document, it does not automatically provide the child's non-parent or guardian with permission to authorize the child's medical treatments. So, a Child Healthcare Consent Form does the job of allowing a temporary caretaker to make medical decisions for the child in case of emergency when a parent or guardian is not present.

Who needs a Child Healthcare Consent Form?

Generally speaking, this sort of document is usually necessary in the same circumstances where a person would also have a Child Travel Consent Form. However, there are some key differences that would make a family choose to use a Child Travel Consent Form without also using the Healthcare document. While a Travel form is used even if a child is traveling with one parent but not the other, the Healthcare form is only necessary if the child is traveling without any parents (who have legal custody) or legal guardians. A single parent or legal guardian has the same rights as the other parent or guardian to consent to medical treatments on behalf of their child. So, the Healthcare form is only used in situations when neither parent will be present and, therefore, unable to be on the scene and ready to provide authorization to healthcare providers who need to treat their child in case of illness or injury.

Generally, a Child Healthcare Consent Form is only necessary when neither parent will be present with the child to consent to medical treatment. However, this only applies to situations where both parents have legal custody, or the power to make decisions on behalf of their child. In cases where only one parent has legal custody, if the child is traveling with the parent who does not have legal custody, a Child Healthcare Consent Form is still necessary.

What's included in a Child Healthcare Consent Form

The main purposes of the Child Healthcare Consent Form are to give permission to a chaperone or other temporary guardian or caretaker of a child to authorize medical professionals to care for the child and also to provide important information about any of the child's medical conditions or special needs that would be relevant to their treatment. A Child Healthcare Consent Form includes the following information:

  • Information identifying the child for whom medical authorization is being given, include full legal name, birth date, and location of their birth
  • Full names and contact information for the parent(s) or legal guardian(s) of the child who are giving the authorization
  • Description of any of the child's allergies and/or special medical needs
  • Full names and contact information for the individual who is being authorized to consent to medical treatment of the child
  • Specifics about the types of treatment, such as surgery, administration of prescription or over the counter medication, and routine or emergency medical treatment, that the temporary caretaker is being authorized to allow for the child
  • Names and locations of preferred medical providers, hospitals, and treatment centers
  • Information about the child's medical insurance coverage
  • Start and end dates of when the temporary caretaker will be authorized by this document to consent to the child's treatment

Once all of the required information has been filled out, at least one parent or legal guardian granting authority should sign and date the document. It is unnecessary for both parents to sign the document to grant authority for a third party to make medical decisions for the child. Copies of the document should be given to the caretaker for them to keep with them as they travel with the child. Copies of the document can also be distributed to any primary care providers or medical professionals that regularly see the children or that the parents anticipate the child might see during the travel so that the documents are already on hand in case of emergency.

Additional Documents

When traveling with children, it's often necessary to bring additional identification and other documentation to be sure the trip goes smoothly. These requirements vary considerably depending on the age of the child and where the traveling is taking place.

Domestic Travel

When traveling domestically, or inside the United States, there is usually limited documentation that children are required to travel with. Minors are not required to have identity documentation when traveling by car or train. When traveling by air, the requirements are dependent upon the age of the child. According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), children under the age of 14 are not required to show any identification at TSA checkpoints. However, some airlines require a birth certificate for children under the age of 14 to prove their age. Though they are still minors, most airlines require children over the age of 14 to have some sort of identification when traveling by air, especially if they are traveling alone. Acceptable forms of identification include a passport, driver's license, or school-issued ID.

Border Country Travel

Though countries or territories bordering the United States, such as Canada, Mexico, or the Carribean islands, are technically international, there are often different requirements to travel to these places than to travel further from home. When traveling to one of these border countries by land or sea, minors under the age of 15 must still have identification but can travel using a certified birth certificate instead of using a passport. For children older then 15 and for any children traveling by air, a passport is still required to visit one of these border countries.

International Travel

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) is a legal framework in the United States that requires all travelers to present valid identity documentation, such as a passport, when traveling into the U.S. from places within the western hemisphere. This means that even U.S. citizens must present a passport when returning back home from outside of the country. This requirement applies equally to all, even infants and small children. If a child does not have a passport, both of their parents or legal guardians must appear in person to apply for one. Therefore, this requirement should be taken care of before a child leaves the country without both of their parents or guardians present to accompany them.

Some countries require a visa for entry and proof of specific vaccinations may be required in some cases. Rules about required documentation can vary substantially from country to country. Therefore, when traveling outside of the US, it is always important to consult the US State Department International Travel website to be sure all of the necessary documents are ready and in order in time for the trip.

Final Takeaways

Traveling with children can be stressful, but by preparing for the trip by ensuring that all of the necessary documents are in place, parents can rest easy that their child will be able to travel freely and smoothly as planned.

  • A Child Travel Consent Form is necessary any time both parents or legal guardians will not be present with a child who is traveling
    • This form explains the child's travel plans, provides written consent to that travel, and is signed by any parent or guardian who will not be present during the trip
    • This form is especially important for very young children or children traveling outside of the country
    • In situations where there is a custody order in place, the child should travel with a copy of that custody order in addition to the child travel consent form in case officials want more detailed information
  • A Child Healthcare Consent Form is necessary any time neither parent or legal guardian will be present during the child's travel and a temporary caretaker must be authorized to consent to the child's medical treatment
    • This form provides authorization as well as information about the child's medical needs and allergies
    • This document can be given ahead of time to any medical providers the parents anticipate their child might need to see during their travel
  • Other documents that a child might need while traveling include a passport or certified birth certificate, depending on the age of the child and the location of the travel

About the Author: Malissa Durham is a Legal Templates Programmer and Attorney at Wonder.Legal and is based in the U.S.A.

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