Is your driver’s license REAL ID-compliant? If not, the clock is ticking.

The REAL ID Act is changing the way that most driver’s licenses are issued. It is also changing the identification requirements at security checkpoints for Americans who fly.

Originally planned for an October 2020 rollout, the REAL ID Act will now become effective on October 1, 2021. From that point forward, all state-issued ID cards must meet new standards in order to be used for boarding domestic flights.

So what is a REAL ID and how do you get one? Our complete guide covers everything you need to know!


REAL ID Act: The Basics

The REAL ID Act establishes minimum security standards for the production and issue of driver’s licenses and personal identification cards across the United States. The law also prohibits federal agencies from accepting identification that doesn’t meet those security standards.

So what kind of security standards are we talking about? The new requirements basically fall into two categories: the process for obtaining a REAL ID and the physical attributes of the cards themselves. On the process side, applicants need to provide extra documentation to confirm their identity and residence before they can get a REAL ID-compliant license. On the card side, anti-forgery features are built in to prevent fraud.

Although the law passed in 2005, it was intended to be fully implemented by October 1, 2020. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump Administration announced that REAL ID requirements will be delayed until October 1, 2021.

How the REAL ID Act Affects You

What does all of this mean for you?

After October 1, 2021, the REAL ID Act requires everyone age 18 and older to have a REAL ID-compliant identification to fly commercially within the United States. Children younger than 18 will not need a REAL ID to fly.

The law also applies for those who want to enter certain federal facilities and nuclear power plants. Federal buildings and nuclear power plants have already started requiring REAL ID-compliant identification for entry.

In a nutshell, if you want to use your driver’s license to board a flight within the U.S., you might need to get a new identification card. Of course, your license may already be compliant – in which case, you’re good to go.

What Is a REAL ID?

What qualifies as a REAL ID-compliant identification card? I’m glad you asked.

State-issued driver’s licenses that comply with regulations are marked with a star at the top of the card. Here’s a visual of how that might look, straight from the Department of Homeland Security’s website:

Real ID graphic

Although each state’s ID cards look slightly different, the main thing you need to look for is one of those symbols on the upper right-hand corner of your ID. For example, here is what a compliant REAL ID from Illinois looks like:

Most states have been issuing REAL ID-compliant licenses for a while, so there’s a good chance you already have one. If you’re unsure whether or not your card is compliant, just check for one of the symbols shown above. You can also ask your local DMV for guidance.

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How to Get A REAL ID

Regardless of where you live, to get a REAL ID, you will need to prove your identity and residency in-person. Save yourself some time and trouble by following the correct procedures and bringing the proper documentation to your visit.

Each state has their own requirements and a slightly different process for obtaining a REAL ID. Be sure you understand where, how, and what documentation is required by your state to apply. You can visit your state’s DMV website by following one of the links below.

State DMV and BMV Websites

MontanaNebraskaNevadaNew HampshireNew Jersey
New MexicoNew YorkNorth CarolinaNorth DakotaOhio
OklahomaOregonPennsylvaniaRhode IslandSouth Carolina
South DakotaTennesseeTexasUtahVermont
VirginiaWashingtonWest VirginiaWisconsinWyoming
Washington, D.C.

REAL ID Requirements

Requirements for a REAL ID vary by state. According to the Department of Homeland Security, however, minimum requirements for all states must include proof of your:

  • Full legal name
  • Date of birth
  • Social Security number
  • Address of principal residence (two sources)
  • Lawful status

One thing to note is that two documents are required as proof of your address. This is an enhanced security measure that makes it less likely that someone will succeed in obtaining a license from a state they don’t actually live in.

Proving your legal name means you’ll need to bring a birth certificate or valid passport with you. However, you should check with your state’s REAL ID requirements prior to arriving at the DMV. If you’ve changed your name for any reason, you’ll have to provide proof of the name change as well.

REAL ID vs. Enhanced Driver’s License

State-issued enhanced driver’s licenses are also an acceptable form of identification for boarding domestic flights in the U.S.

A REAL ID and a state-issued enhanced driver’s license are different in one important way: You can use an enhanced license, but not a REAL ID, to cross the border into Canada, Mexico, and some Caribbean countries via land or sea. For air travel to these countries, you always need a passport.

There are a few states that issue enhanced driver’s licenses and REAL ID licenses. Those states include Michigan, Vermont, Minnesota, and New York. (Washington only issues enhanced licenses).

So, if you have a choice, which type of ID should you get? If you have a state-issued enhanced driver’s license, there’s no need to get a REAL ID-compliant license. You can use your existing license to fly domestically, no problem.

But if you have a standard driver’s license and want to upgrade to one you can use for domestic travel, you have a choice to make. It really comes down to whether you want to be able to cross the border via land or air, and if you’re willing to pay extra for the enhanced ID. Check with your DMV for info on pricing.

Other Acceptable Forms of ID for Air Travel

REAL ID Review - picture of young woman holding up passport and smiling

According to the Transportation Security Administration, other acceptable forms of identification for air travel in the U.S. include:

  • U.S. passport
  • U.S. passport card
  • State-issued enhanced driver’s license
  • State-issued photo ID 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
  • State-issued 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

So if you have one of these, you don’t need to stress about a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license.

Related: How to Get TSA Precheck or Global Entry for Free

Frequently Asked Questions


The Bottom Line

By October 1, 2021, you’ll need a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license or other acceptable form of ID to board a commercial aircraft in the U.S. (The original October 1, 2020 deadline was pushed back due to complications with the COVID-19 pandemic.) If you want the convenience of using your license as ID for domestic flights, you’ll have to:

  • Check to see if your driver’s license is marked with a star. If so, you’re good to go.
  • If not, check with your local DMV to find out how to get a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license.

If you have a valid passport and are comfortable using it for domestic travel, you don’t really need to worry about the REAL ID Act. Same goes for a state-issued enhanced driver’s license. Carry on as you were!

We hope this guide to the REAL ID Act has been helpful. Until next time, happy traveling!

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