If you’ve traveled anywhere in the last few years, you’ve likely heard about the REAL ID Act. We’ll review what a REAL ID is, what it’s used for, and who should get one. Enjoy!

If you’re an American citizen who flies within the U.S., you probably use your state-issued driver’s license as identification when boarding a domestic flight. Most people have their license in their wallet anyway, so it’s easier than taking your passport for a non-international flight.

When you’re packing for Europe, you know you’re taking your passport. You don’t have a choice. But if you’re sightseeing in NYC, you can leave it at home.

Originally planned for an October 2020 rollout, a new rule governing how driver’s licenses are issued will come into effect on October 1, 2021. From that point on, driver’s licenses must meet the new standards if you want to use it to board a domestic flight.

The rule is called the REAL ID Act, and though it passed in 2005, it was intended to be fully implemented by October 1, 2020. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump Administration recently announced that the REAL ID requirements will be delayed until October 1, 2021.

Regardless, you’re going to need a REAL ID eventually. So, what is a REAL ID and how do you get one? We’ve got all the deats you need to know right here!

What Is the REAL ID Act?

The REAL ID Act is (sort of) new legislation in the United States that establishes minimum security standards for the production and issue of driver’s licenses. It prohibits federal agencies from accepting identification that doesn’t meet those security standards.

What kind of security standards are we talking about? Well, they 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.

What does that mean for you? Well, the REAL ID Act requires all travelers aged 18 years or older to have REAL ID-compliant identification (or another acceptable form of ID) for air travel within the U.S. Children under 18 do not need a REAL ID. It also applies to gain access to federal facilities and nuclear power plants, but that is likely not super relevant for most of us.

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

What Is REAL ID-Compliant Identification?

What qualifies as REAL ID-compliant identification? 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

Most states have been issuing REAL ID-compliant licenses for a while, so there’s a good chance you already have one. Check for one of the above symbols, and if you want to be extra-sure, ask your local DMV.

When Does the REAL ID Act Take Effect?

The REAL ID Act has been in the works for a long time. It was passed by Congress in 2005 in response to a recommendation by the 9/11 Commission, but the final stage was supposed to take effect on October 1, 2020. Due to the social distancing measures put in place because of the coronavirus pandemic, that date has been pushed back until October 1, 2021.

Whenever the new date is announced, all states will be required to have started issuing REAL-ID compliant driver’s licenses. And actually, most states already have.

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Come October 1, 2021, airports will have to fall in line, too. That means you won’t be able to board a commercial aircraft in the U.S. unless you have a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license or other acceptable form of ID. Seriously, if you show up at the airport with a standard driver’s license and no other approved form of ID, you won’t get past security.

Federal buildings and nuclear power plants have already started requiring REAL ID-compliant identification for entry.

Do I Need a REAL ID if I have a Passport?

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

You might be wondering if you need to bother upgrading your license if you have a U.S. passport.

Here’s the short answer: Not unless you want to.

A valid passport is considered an acceptable form of identification for boarding any flight. Heck, the passport is pretty much the gold standard of travel documentation all over the world, so you’re always safe with that.

But because losing your passport is a huge pain, some travelers prefer to not use it to fly domestically. Why take it if you don’t have to?

A REAL ID-compliant driver’s license is a good alternative. If you lose it, it’s far less of a hassle to replace. Plus, people who don’t travel internationally might not need a passport at all.

If you don’t have a driver’s license or a passport, it doesn’t mean you’re grounded. There are other forms of ID you can use to board a flight, even once the REAL ID Act takes effect.

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

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

What’s the Difference Between a REAL ID and Enhanced Driver’s License?

You might have noticed in the list above that state-issued enhanced driver’s licenses are 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.

Where Can I Use a REAL ID?

Think of it this way: Your REAL ID-compliant driver’s license is an acceptable form of ID for boarding a commercial aircraft in the U.S., entering a nuclear power plant, or visiting a federal facility. But those aren’t the only times you’ll use it. You can use it for anything that a driver’s license is typically acceptable for. It’s essentially just a new and improved license.

Where Can’t I Use a REAL ID?

Your REAL ID replaces your old driver’s license, but it doesn’t replace your passport. That means that for travel outside the U.S., it’s not going to fly (pun intended). You can’t use it to board international flights, and you can’t use it to cross the Mexican or Canadian borders on land. For any of that, you’ll still need a passport (or an enhanced driver’s license for on-land border crossings).

Do I Really Need a REAL ID?

You only need a REAL ID if you plan to use your driver’s license as identification to board domestic flights in the U.S., enter nuclear power plants, or visit federal facilities. If you don’t have plans to do any of that, then you don’t technically need one.

The REAL ID Act has no impact on your ability to drive, vote, or buy alcohol. Your existing standard driver’s license continues to function as it always did in every situation except the three that the act covers.

How Do I Get A REAL ID?

To get a REAL ID, check with your state’s DMV. DMV websites should list the documentation you’ll need to provide. Sorry, but it’s going to involve an in-person visit. That’s because you’ll have to present certain documents that prove your identity and residence.

Requirements may vary by state, but according to the Department of Homeland Security, minimum requirements will include proof of:

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

Notice that they want two documents providing 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.

Proof of your legal name will mean bringing a birth certificate or valid passport, but again, check with your state’s requirements. If you’ve changed your name for any reason, you’ll have to provide proof of the name change as well.

Benefits of Getting a REAL ID

The benefit of getting a REAL ID is simple: You’ll be able to board domestic flights in the U.S. using your driver’s license. That’s convenient and eliminates the need to use your passport (if you have one) for domestic travel. If your regular driver’s license will expire soon, it’s a perfect time to upgrade to a REAL ID-compliant license.

On a larger scale, the REAL ID Act makes your driver’s license and the process for obtaining it more secure, and hopefully increases security on U.S. flights.

Drawbacks of Getting a REAL ID

The only drawbacks to getting a REAL ID are the upfront cost (if there is one — it varies by state) and the inconvenience of going to the DMV and presenting your documents. On the bright side, these drawbacks are one-time occurrences that will hopefully be outweighed by the benefits.

How Much Does a REAL ID Cost?

Driver’s licenses are issued at the state level, so prices will vary. Check with your local DMV to get an idea of cost. In some states, there may be an additional fee for producing a REAL ID-compliant license. In others, it may cost the same as a standard license.

Is My State REAL ID Compliant?

At this time, 47 of the 50 US states were REAL ID-compliant. The exceptions are Oregon, Oklahoma, and New Jersey.

If you live in one of those three states, don’t panic. They are well on their way. Oklahoma and Oregon have extensions in place, allowing them a little more time to start issuing compliant licenses, and New Jersey’s practices are under review. It is expected that all 50 states will be good to go for the October 1 deadline.

Federal facilities and nuclear power plants have already enforced the REAL ID Act identification requirements. Airports and airlines will cease accepting non-compliant ID cards on October 1, 2021, so you’ll need to get your REAL ID by then if you don’t already have one. Most states have been issuing REAL ID-compliant licenses for a while, so you might already have one in your wallet. Check for the star if you’re not sure.

The Bottom Line: What Does the REAL ID Act Mean for You?

OK, let’s recap: 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 has been 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 yes, you’re good to go.
  • If not, check with your local DMV to find out what you need to do to get a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license, and then do that.

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!

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