Get Real: New ID Requirements for U.S. Travel

Soon you may not be able to pass through security checkpoints at your local airport using your current form of identification, even if you're just flying domestically. The crackdown is aimed at U.S. citizens who don't yet have a "Real ID-compliant" driver's license, United States passport, United States military ID or another acceptable form of identification.

The requirements for Real IDs kick in on October 1, 2020, less than a year from now. According to a recent survey, more than half of the population have no idea that this deadline is looming.

Real ID Act

The requirements for Real IDs aren't exactly "new." They can be traced back to the Real ID Act of 2005. The law heeded the 9/11 Commission's recommendation that the federal government should set higher standards for sources of identification, such as drivers' licenses.

Specifically, the law established minimum security standards for license issuance and production. It also prohibited federal agencies from accepting for certain purposes driver's licenses and ID cards from states not meeting the law's minimum standards. Activities covered by the tougher security standards include:

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was charged with enforcing these rules. In 2013, the DHS announced a phased-in enforcement plan to implement the law in a "measured, fair, and responsible way." In 2016, it stated that, starting January 22, 2018, passengers with drivers' licenses issued by a state that isn't compliant with the Real ID Act (and hasn't been granted an extension) must show an alternative form of acceptable identification for domestic air travel to board their flight.

The DHS remains committed to enforcing the Real ID Act in accordance with its phased-in enforcement schedule and regulatory time frames. Thus, it's not likely to grant additional extensions to any states that haven't shown that they're committed to achieving full compliance and making progress in satisfying the requirements. This unyielding stance has spurred more states into action in recent years.

Status Update

Though most states offer this secure identification, the DHS says that only about a quarter of Americans (27%) have obtained a Real ID-compliant card.

Obtaining a Real ID Act-compliant license isn't as simple as walking into a local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) agency the next time your license is up for renewal. The DHS requires you to provide documentation showing your full legal name, date of birth, Social Security number (SSN), two proofs of the address of your principal residence and lawful status. Plus, your home state may impose additional requirements.

What will happen if you don't have a Real ID-compliant document when you arrive at the airport for a flight within the United States? The airport's Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint won't clear you for the flight. This could lead to long lines, flight delays and disgruntled travelers.

The slowdowns will also cause headaches for those who have obtained their Real IDs. And, if travelers are unable to board their flights, the effects will likely trickle down to other businesses, such as hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions.  

Has your state made progress toward Real ID compliance? As of October 1, 2019, 47 of the 50 states were up-to-speed on Real ID compliance. By comparison, as of January of 2017, only 26 states had been Real ID-compliant.

The three states that have lagged behind — New Jersey, Oklahoma and Oregon — are finally ramping up efforts to meet the deadline for Real ID-compliant cards. But you may encounter problems in other states, too. For example, in Pennsylvania, Real ID-compliant documents are available, but not required, which is causing some confusion among residents.

In addition, while many states have been handing out compliant ID documents for years, drivers' licenses and other cards issued before the Real ID standards were adopted don't meet the requirements. For instance, in states like California that recently became compliant, some residents with existing licenses haven't been required to obtain the "new-and-improved" versions. Thus, depending on your license renewal date, you might get stopped before boarding a plane next year.

Get on Board

Is your ID up-to-date? Check your wallet to see if your driver's license or state ID has a gold star in the upper left-hand corner. If not, head down to your local DMV location for a card that meets the DHS requirements. And don't delay: Many states are expecting long lines next August and September.

Complying with the New Requirements

How can you tell if your driver's license or state identification card is Real ID-compliant? Look for a star in the upper right-hand corner. If it's there, you're good to go. If you're still not sure about your status, some state DMVs will confirm it online.

The following documents qualify as a Real ID under the law:

For more information on this issue, visit the DHS website.

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