En español | Starting on Oct. 1, 2021, Real ID will become one of the accepted forms of identification travelers will need to use to get through airport security under the federal Real ID law. You can alternately use certain federal documents, such as a passport or permanent resident card, but a traditional driver’s license will no longer pass muster at Transportation Security Authority (TSA) screenings before commercial flights, or for entering certain federal facilities.
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) announcement on Oct. 1, this year “approximately 110 million Real ID-compliant driver’s licenses and identification cards, representing 40 percent of all driver’s licenses and identification card holders,” have been issued.
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.
All states now offer the Real ID, after some significant delays. While 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 cards available — Oklahoma began issuing the cards at the end of June and Oregon did so in July.
Another roadblock has been the coronavirus: Many states’ in-person DMV services were suspended last spring, inspiring some state lawmakers to request that the federal government delay the deadline for compliance once more (the previous deadline was Oct. 1, 2020, before it was delayed a year in March). Now many DMV offices are open, but with limited in-person services; some — including New York, Arizona and California — require visitors to make appointments to bring in their Real ID paperwork in-person.
Because each state has been handling the new requirements differently, and there’s been much confusion over how to get the cards and what they are, it helps to understand a few basics about Real ID:
• 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.”
• At some point after Oct. 1, 2021, 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.
Some reasons for the confusion and delays:
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.”
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. 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.