In the United States, commercial airports are considered federal agencies—so when you travel via a United States airline, you’re automatically subjected to strict security requirements. If you’ve ever flown before, then you know you’re required to verify your identity as you pass through the airport security checkpoint. This can be done by providing an accepted form of identification, such as a driver’s license or passport.
What you may not realize is that over the course of the past 14 years or so, the REAL ID Act has been making significant changes in identity verification, particularly as it relates to driver’s licenses and other state identification cards. What does this mean for you as a traveler? By having a better understanding of what the REAL ID Act entails and how to make sure you have a REAL ID-compliant license, you can avoid delays and headaches the next time you head to the airport.
Understanding REAL ID
The REAL ID Act was passed in 2005 to establish “minimum security standards for license issuance and production and prohibit Federal agencies from accepting for certain purposes driver’s licenses and identification cards from states not meeting the Act’s minimum standards.” One of the main goals of this is to reduce instances of airline terrorism by making it more difficult for terrorists to forge identification documents.
Since the act was passed, individual states have been working to revamp their systems and begin issuing new identification cards that are REAL ID-compliant. Specifically, these states have taken measures to increase security and require more documentation/proof of residency before issuing driver’s licenses and state ID cards.
By October 1, 2020, all states will be required to be REAL ID-compliant. Currently, most states are already issuing these IDs (and have been for quite some time), but there are a handful of states that have been granted extensions.
What this means for you as a traveler is that you’ll need to have a REAL ID-compliant license or state ID card by October 1, 2020 if you plan to travel and use your state ID as a form of identity verification at the airport security checkpoint. If you live in a state that has been granted an extension, such as Kentucky, you’ll have until the date of the extension’s expiration to obtain a compliant ID card.
Is Your License REAL ID-Compliant?
There’s a good chance that you’re already carrying a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license or state ID card and don’t even realize it, as most states have been in compliance with this act for quite some time. Identifying characteristics of a compliant ID card can vary from state to state, but most will have some kind of gold or black star on the front (often in the front-right corner) to signify this. If your driver’s license or state ID has this, you’re good to go.
On the other hand, if your license lacks this star or if your license says “Federal limits apply” or “not for Federal identification” anywhere on it, then it is not in compliance with the REAL ID Act and thus will not be able to be used as identity verification at airport security beginning on October 1, 2020.
TSA ID Requirements and Acceptable Documents List
Per the TSA website, adult passengers 18 and over must show valid identification at the airport checkpoint in order to travel.
- Driver’s licenses or other state photo identity cards issued by Department of Motor Vehicles (or equivalent)
- U.S. passport
- U.S. passport card
- DHS trusted traveler cards (Global Entry, NEXUS, SENTRI, FAST)
- U.S. Department of Defense ID, including IDs issued to dependents
- Permanent resident card
- Border crossing card
- DHS-designated enhanced driver’s license
- Federally recognized, tribal-issued photo ID
- HSPD-12 PIV card
- Foreign government-issued passport
- Canadian provincial driver’s license or Indian and Northern Affairs Canada card
- Transportation worker identification credential
- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Employment Authorization Card (I-766)
- U.S. Merchant Mariner Credential
Beginning Oct. 1, 2020, if you plan to use your state-issued ID or license to fly within the U.S., make sure it is REAL ID compliant. If you are not sure if your ID complies with REAL ID, check with your state department of motor vehicles.
How to Obtain a REAL ID-Compliant License
If your state is REAL ID-compliant, there’s a good chance that you already have a compliant license and won’t need to do anything further. However, if you live in a compliant state and don’t have a license with a star on it, you may need to take steps to obtain a new ID. After all, most states will not automatically issue new, compliant IDs. You will only receive a new ID when the time to renew yours arises.
If you need a compliant ID in order to fly, you’ll need to take steps to get a new ID through your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office. It is recommended that you schedule an appointment to obtain your new license if this is an option available through your state’s DMV, as the process can be a bit time-consuming. Some DMVs may even require you to schedule an appointment in order to apply for a new ID.
When applying for a REAL ID, you’ll need to bring the following documentation to your DMV branch:
- proof of identity (such as United States birth certificate or passport)
- proof of Social Security Number (such as SSN card or W-2)
- proof of residency (such as a lease agreement or utility bill)
If your name has changed since the last time you obtained a license/ID through your state, you’ll also need to provide proof of your name change. For example, if your last name changed due to marriage, you should bring a certified copy of your marriage license to your DMV appointment.
Your new license or ID will also have applicable fees that can vary by state, so be sure to bring your check book or other form of accepted payment to complete your transaction. Once you’ve provided all the required documentation, you will likely be issued a temporary ID and your new card will be mailed to you within a few weeks.
Other Options for Verifying Your Identity
Keep in mind that a REAL ID-compliant ID card isn’t the only option you have for proving your identity when you go through airport security. If you choose not to upgrade your driver’s license (or if you’re simply unable to obtain an updated license by the time you need to travel), there are other means of proving your identity. If you have a United States passport or passport card, for example, this can be used to get through airport security. Some other (less common) examples of identification that can be used include:
- a border-crossing card
- a permanent resident card
- United States Department of Defense ID
For security reasons, you will not be permitted to pass through airport security or board your flight if you’re unable to verify your identity with any of these documents
A Few Other Considerations to Keep in Mind
Although it was passed back in 2005, many Americans have never heard of the REAL ID Act and thus don’t understand how it affects them. Even now that you have a better understanding of what this act entails, you may still have some lingering questions.
Traveling With Children?
One of the most common questions people have about REAL ID compliance is how it will apply to their minor children. The good news is that if you’ll be traveling with a child under the age of 18, he or she will not need to REAL ID card when traveling within the United States. Keep in mind that your child will still need some form of identification, however, and that accepted forms of ID can vary slightly from one airline to the next.
Depending on where you’re traveling, you may need documentation for your child in the form of a birth certificate or passport. The best way to figure out exactly what you’ll need to bring when traveling with your child in preparation for a trip is to contact your airline directly. Keep in mind that if you’re flying with one airline on the way to your destination and another airline on the way back, you may need to bring different identification documents for each airline.
If You Live in an Extension State
While most states are already in-compliance with the REAL ID Act, there are a handful that have been granted extensions by the Federal government. Some examples of these include California, Oregon, Montana, Maine, and Kentucky. If you live in a state that has received an extension, you’ll want to check with your state website to find out the extension deadline; this is the date you’ll have until to get your new ID. Be aware, however, that additional extensions may be granted, so these dates are not necessarily set in stone.
Even if you live in an extension state and have past the October 1, 2020 deadline to obtain a REAL ID, it’s a good idea to get this out of the way as soon as possible—especially if you do a fair amount of traveling. You don’t want to wait until the last minute to apply for a REAL ID, especially when you consider that it can take a few weeks to receive your card. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to get to your local DMV and apply for a REAL ID card as soon as possible.
What About Voting and Other Applications?
One of the most common misconceptions people have about the REAL ID program is that it a REAL ID is required to vote or gain access to any kind of federal facility. This simply is not true. Even if you don’t have a REAL ID, you should still be able to vote, receive a driver’s license, apply for federal benefits, and access federal facilities (so long as they don’t require identification).
It’s important to remember that the primary purpose of the REAL ID Act is to increase security in federal facilities—particularly in airports. This act was not passed to make it difficult for you to participate in voting or using other federal services available to you.
On the other hand, you should also realize that a REAL ID is not a substitute for a United States passport if you’re traveling internationally. This is another common misconception that people tend to have. So make sure to renew your passport before you leave the country.
What if You Lose or Forget Your ID?
If you’ve lost or forgotten to bring your REAL ID to the airport with you, try not to fret too much. If you have time, you might consider going back home to retrieve your ID (assuming you know where it is). However, you should not attempt this if you’re not confident that you’ll have time to get back and get through airport security with plenty of time before your flight.
The good news is that even if you’ve forgotten your ID, there are some steps you can take with TSA agents to verify your identity and move through the security checkpoint. In order to do this, you will need to complete a verification process where you provide information such as your name, address, and other identifying information to confirm your identity.
This process can take some time, so obviously you’ll want to avoid it by bringing your ID whenever possible. However, if you are able to verify your identity this way, you can pass through the security checkpoint and still make your flight. If you know you’ll need to go through this process ahead of time (perhaps you’ve lost your ID and don’t have any other forms of acceptable ID), you should plan on arriving at the airport at least two hours before your flight’s scheduled departure to ensure you have enough time to complete the verification process with TSA agents.
The Bottom Line
Overall, the REAL ID Act should make TSA ID requirements, airport security and air travel safer and more efficient than ever. In the years since the act was passed, however, each state has been responsible for updating their own identity verification processes to become REAL ID-compliant. The result has led to some confusion, with a handful of states still not entirely in compliance and many people still not fully aware of what the REAL ID program is and what it entails.
Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of why the REAL ID Act was implemented and how to make sure you’re carrying the proper identification before the October 1, 2020 deadline. If you don’t already have a compliant ID, now is the time to contact your local DMV and begin the process of applying for one. From there, you can travel with greater confidence.
And of course, if your ID already has a gold or black star in the upper-right corner, you’re already good to go. Now is a good time to check! Most people who live in a compliant state and have renewed or obtained a new license within the past few years will already be carrying a compliant card. From there, it’s just a matter of remembering to bring it to the airport with you, along with any other documentation (such as a passport) that may be required based on your itinerary details. Happy and safe travels!