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What You Need to Know About Real ID and Travel

Travelers have until 2023 to get the upgraded driver’s licenses for security screening

Kansas Real ID

AP

En españolThe U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will begin enforcing the Real ID law on May 3, 2023. The new deadline follows a previous deadline of Oct. 1, 2021, which was deemed unworkable due to the pandemic, and its disruption of states’ abilities to issue the Real ID-compliant driver’s licenses. Real ID paperwork needs to be brought to Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offices in person.

The enforcement date, first set for 2008, has been delayed multiple times. 

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 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.


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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 first made Real ID cards available last year, including Oklahoma and Oregon, which began issuing them in the summer of 2020.  

The current problem: DMV offices’ closures during the early part of the pandemic, combined with staffing shortages in many areas of the country, have created a backlog of expired licenses needing renewal and long wait times for processing.

States are trying to catch up. Oklahoma recently opened walk-in “megacenters” in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, meant to tackle the backlog of applications. Officials in Kentucky set up pop-up stations at the recent Kentucky State Fair in Louisville, where fairgoers could upgrade to Real IDs and be reminded of the 2023 deadline.

The DHS, meanwhile, has spent years on its Real ID public information campaign, but many people remain confused over how to get the cards and what they are.  

A few basics about Real ID:

  • To get a Real ID, you need to present documents to your DMV 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 “Travel ID.” New Jersey continues to issue standard state licenses, which are marked with the words “Not for ‘REAL ID’ purposes.” 
  • At some point after May 3, 2023, 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 privacy concerns:

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.  

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 that 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. Others just don’t have one — that includes a woman in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who was born in 1938 with no record of her birth, so a friend of the family filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get confirmation of her citizenship from the FBI, according to a report by the local ABC network.

Check with your state to see if there are alternatives. In Maryland, for example, 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.

Watch Out for REAL ID Scams

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.

Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing. 

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