I understand that to travel to South America your US passport has to be good for 6 months after your return. Why is this? Is it true?
Having just scrambled to get my US passport renewed (in order to obtain a Brazilian visa), I think perhaps you are misunderstanding slightly.
This is the language from the website of the Brazilian Consulate in NYC:
"The passport presented at the Consulate with your visa application must be valid for at least another 6 months and must have at least one blank visa page available."
So in fact what you ask is true, at least as it relates to Brazil. I have no idea if this is the case for other South American countries. As far as why this is the case, I am only speculating, but I do know that I will have to USD160 because that is what the US state department charges Brazilians for a visa to visit the USA. Perhaps the 6 month rule was prompted by a similar type of "reciprocity"...
Is that 6 months after your arrival date in Brazil or 6 months after your scheduled departure date I wonder?
many countries have similar rules.
the reason? the country does not want to get stuck with someone without a valid passport who would then not be allowed to enter other countries. In an extreme case, think Snowden in Moscow without a valid passport - he just could not travel anywhere.
On a more mundane level, countries require this extra time since stuff may happen that delay your leaving the country for some time: illness, Icelandic volcanoes, airlines/travel agents going bankrupt and stranding passengers, etc.... Countries just like to have a cushion in case that happens to you.
For example, the European Union has just clarified the rule by saying that you need to have your passport valid for 90 days beyond your expected date of departure from Europe.
And even the USA, which used to require only that your passport were valid till your date of your departure from USA, now has changed the language on the consulate website saying that "it is always advisable to travel with a passport that is valid for 6 months beyond your departure date from the USA".
Still unsure is it 6 months from arrival or departure date.
this is from the Brazilian Embassy in Dublin webpage:
"Passports must be valid for at least six months from the date of intended arrival in Brazil, and have enough blank pages for visas and entrance stamps.
Length of stay in Brazil could be up to 90 days, which can be extended to a further 90 days, at the discretion of the Brazilian Immigration Authorities (DPMAF). However, tourist stays in Brazil should not exceed 180 days in any 12-month period."
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