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Why Real ID Is Causing Real Confusion

Officials have delayed the deadline for when a regular driver’s license won’t be enough to fly

Kansas Real ID


En español | The U.S. government has delayed the Oct. 1, 2020, deadline for Real ID, one of the accepted forms of identification travelers will need to use in place of a regular driver’s license to get through airport security under the federal Real ID law. The new deadline is Oct. 1, 2021.

“At a time when we’re asking Americans to maintain social distancing, we do [not] want to require people to go with their local DMV,” President Donald Trump said.  

Many states’ in-person DMV services have been suspended due to the coronavirus, so state lawmakers have lobbied hard to delay the implementation. Officials have also been alarmed that even a few months ago most Americans still hadn’t acquired a Real ID. In January, the U.S. Department of  Homeland Security (DHS) announced that, according to reports from the states, “95 million Real-ID-compliant driver’s licenses and ID cards (34 percent) out of 276 million total cards” had been issued. Roadblocks have included confusing paperwork requirements, privacy concerns and (a big one) the failure of some states to issue the new cards.

Conceived as part of 2005 legislation in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Real ID law requires people to show security-enhanced IDs to pass through airport security checkpoints or to enter certain federal facilities, such as military bases, once the regulations begin to be enforced. Travelers 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.

Because each state has been handling the new requirements differently, it helps to understand a few basics about the cards:

• 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.”

You will also be able to use passports or certain other federal documents as an alternative to a Real ID.

• At some point after Oct. 1, a regular driver’s license won’t be sufficient to get a passenger through security and onto a plane. The Real ID technically is not mandatory because you can instead use other approved documents, including a passport, passport card, U.S. military ID, Enhanced ID (offered in some states) 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.

All of that may sound simple enough, but, 15 years after its conception, many people still have been unable to get their new cards. Though some states and Washington, D.C., have been issuing Real ID cards for several years with little fanfare, others have only recently made Real ID available — and a few are still working on it. Oklahoma promised to start issuing the cards April 30, and Oregon won’t begin offering Real IDs until July 6.

You can check your state’s status on the DHS site, which has a color-coded clickable map, though you’ll find more detail on your state government’s site.

Some reasons for the confusion and delays:

Privacy concerns

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. Legislators in Idaho, Oklahoma, Kentucky and elsewhere even passed laws prohibiting their motor vehicle departments from implementing the new federal requirements and so have had to play catch-up to meet the deadline — now delayed again. (Before the now-dismissed October 2020 deadline, the enforcement date was set for January 2018.)

In Kentucky, privacy concerns were initially an issue, says Naitore Djigbenou, director of public affairs for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. “We’ve communicated to people that this is a state-maintained card,” she says. “There’s no national database or anything.” Kentucky, which still offers old-style driver’s licenses, has started issuing optional Real IDs in certain counties.

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.”

Paperwork problems

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. Maryland residents 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.

In other states, if you don’t have a passport you need a birth certificate — and it has to be state-issued, not the pretty document your parents may have received from the hospital where you were born. Some people have had to go back to their hometown to get an official copy from city records.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published Aug. 23, 2019. It was updated to reflect the current status of Real ID availability and the delay in the deadline.

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