Editor's note: Updated to reflect the current status of REAL ID availability.
En español | The Transportation Security Administration has begun verbally notifying travelers about the upcoming REAL ID deadline, a little more than 13 months away.
Oct. 1, 2020, is the day the Real ID law will finally be enforced. Conceived as part of 2005 legislation in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it requires people to show security-enhanced IDs to pass through airport security checkpoints or to enter certain federal facilities, such as military bases. (You will also be able to use passports or certain other federal documents as an alternative to a Real ID.)
Sometimes called the Star Card, because most states are marking their Real ID cards with a gold or black star in the top right corner, it also must include an encoded “machine readable zone,” like a passport’s, with a person’s scannable information. Many state driver’s licenses already have this feature. The key thing that makes the card “special,” is that the federal government requires you to provide certain identifying documentation to obtain one from your state.
“REAL ID implementation is a little more than a year away,” TSA Acting Deputy Administrator Patricia Cogswell said in a statement. “Now is the time to prepare.”
But the rollout has caused confusion for various reasons, so here are a few basics that are helpful to understand:
• To get a Real ID, you need to present documents to your motor vehicle department proving your age and identity, Social Security number and address. That generally means bringing a birth certificate or passport, a Social Security card or tax form such as a W-2, and two proofs of address. If you’ve changed your name through marriage, you’ll need a marriage certificate.
• Although the Real ID is also a driver’s license, the old-style driver’s license is still lawful for driving and still available as an option in many states. (Some, such as Arizona and Kentucky, are trying to make this clear by calling the Real ID a “Voluntary Traveler ID.”)
• To fly, however, a “regular” driver's license won’t be sufficient to get through security and onto a plane. The Real ID technically is not mandatory because you can instead use a passport or an ID from the federal government’s Trusted Traveler Program, such as a Global Entry card.
• For international travel, you’ll still need a passport.
That all may sound simple enough, but, nearly 15 years after its conception, many people still are unable to get their new cards. While some states and Washington, D.C., have been issuing Real ID cards for several years now with little fanfare, others (including Maine) have only recently made Real ID available — and a few are still working on it. Oregon and Oklahoma won’t begin offering the cards until mid-2020.
You can check your state’s status on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s site, which has a color-coded clickable map, though you’ll find more detail on your state government’s site.
Many states have delayed getting the cards in circulation because some residents and legislators worried that Real ID was a way for the government to collect personal information for a national database. State lawmakers in Idaho, Oklahoma, Kentucky and elsewhere even passed laws banning their motor vehicle departments from implementing the new federal requirements and now are playing catch up to meet the upcoming deadline (which was meant to be Jan. 22, 2018, but delayed with all the foot-dragging).
Because Oregon didn’t agree to comply with the Real ID requirements until 2017, for instance, the state won’t be ready to issue the optional new cards until July 2020.
In Kentucky, privacy concerns were initially an issue, says Naitore Djigbenou, director of public affairs for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. But, she adds, “We’ve communicated to people that this is a state-maintained card. There’s no national database or anything.” Kentucky, which will still offer old-style driver’s licenses, will start issuing optional Real IDs in certain counties at the end of March, Djigbenou says, then will expand statewide in phases over the following few months.
The DHS website stresses, “Real ID is a national set of standards, not a national identification card,” and each jurisdiction “maintains its own records, and controls who gets access to those records and under what circumstances.”
For some people, getting the proper paperwork is a problem because their birth or marriage certificate isn’t actually from the state and therefore not sufficient. In Maryland residents who are 65 or older are allowed to submit other documents in place of a birth certificate, including military discharge paperwork, says Christine Nizer, administrator of Maryland’s Motor Vehicle Administration: “We wanted to provide alternatives to make the process as easy as possible.” The state has an online document guide to help residents figure out what’s needed.
Getting the Word Out
Many people remain unaware of, or are simply confused by, the new rules, and the clock is ticking. Idaho made the card available a year ago, but officials reported a few weeks ago that only 5 percent of licensed drivers, or 70,000 people, had applied for one so far.
The Department of Homeland Security has called on travel agents to begin asking their customers whether they’re Real ID compliant, and is stepping up its public education campaign.
“There is still some time,” says Alexis Campbell, spokesperson for Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation, “but it’s good to be proactive.”