Since early this year, American drivers returning home across the United States-Canada border have been required to show a passport every time they pass. In Washington state, though, officials have given their residents another ticket across the border: an Enhanced Driver License (EDL) that meets new federal requirements for proof of citizenship.

With extra security features and a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag that's read remotely as drivers approach the border, the state license lets Washington residents re-enter the United States by land and sea at a fraction of the cost of a passport, and without carrying extra paperwork, making for a quick trip across the border into British Columbia.

From a management standpoint, the project is remarkable not only for its quick turnaround from early planning to issuance of the new licenses, but also for the close cooperation between state, federal and Canadian agencies. Over an 18-month period, at a project cost of $8.5 million, Washington state developed the nation's first state license that's also approved for land and sea border crossings, said Washington Department of Licensing (DOL) Spokeswoman Gigi Zenk. The EDL is a model for similar programs in a few other states, some of which plan to roll out their own EDL programs in mid-2008, according to officials at the Washington DOL and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Maintaining a Smooth Crossing

Until February 2008, American drivers returning to the United States could re-enter with a driver's license or other government-issued photo identification. The long-anticipated change requires printed proof of citizenship - even for children - for re-entry into the United States by land or sea. The change is just one piece of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, a blanket policy change Congress enacted in 2004 in response to border security concerns raised by the 9/11 Commission, according to the DHS.

The deadline for the proof-of-citizenship requirement has been pushed back repeatedly in recent years, with passport offices around the country struggling to keep up with spiking demand for new passports. The new law is expected to tighten security along the United States-Canada border, but many are concerned the inconvenience of carrying the necessary documents - such as passports or birth certificates - and the $97 application fee for a new passport ($82 for children under age16) will complicate what had been a simple border crossing.

In Northern states, where business and tourism draw many people to and from Canada every day, the new requirements threaten to make the greatest impact. "Anybody who's grown up here is used to going across the border," Zenk said. Washington state and British Columbia are particularly concerned about a barrier to travel along the border when Vancouver, just across the Canadian border, hosts the 2010 Winter Olympics.

To maintain the smooth border crossing to which Washingtonians have grown accustomed, the state spent a year and a half working closely with the DHS, British Columbia officials and the company that manufactures the state's identification cards, to develop a state-issued driver's license that also serves as proof of citizenship at the border. Zenk said the state expects about 30,000 people to apply for an EDL in 2008. "All our research indicated that most people would be interested in doing this on renewal of their driver's license," Zenk said. An EDL costs $40 - $15 more than a regular license - to cover the extra cost of an in-person interview and additional document processing during the application process.


Inside the EDL

The EDL looks like a regular Washington driver's license, but it has a red banner across the top of the card and a machine readable zone (a more advanced version of the bar code) that officers can scan at the border, according to the Washington DOL. The licenses also include more subtle security features, said U.S. Customs

Patrick Michels  |  Contributing Writer
Patrick Michels is based in San Francisco and Austin, Texas. He writes for Government Technology, Texas Technology and Emergency Management magazines.