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After This Date, You Won’t Be Able to Fly Without a Real ID

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More than 17 years after Congress approved legislation mandating more consistent and secure federal identification, enforcement of the Real ID Act is finally slated to start on May 3, 2023.

After then, you’ll need a Real ID-approved driver’s license (or other approved identification, like a passport) to board a domestic flight and enter federal facilities.

The Department of Homeland Security was initially going to start enforcing the law on Oct. 1, 2020, but pushed back the deadline with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. In April 2021, the agency delayed enforcement again until 2023.

“Extending the Real ID full enforcement deadline will give states needed time to reopen their driver’s licensing operations and ensure their residents can obtain a REAL ID-compliant license or identification card,” Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement at the time.

Next May might feel far off, but seven months slips by faster than you realize. And with many Department of Motor Vehicle offices still requiring appointments, it’s not something you want to leave to the last minute.

Even if you’re already renewing your license in the coming months anyway, you’ll likely need to bring additional documentation than you would for a typical renewal.

Here’s everything you need to know about the Real ID, including where to apply for one, what you’ll need to bring with you and what happens if you don’t have one after the May 3 deadline.

For more on travel regulations find out how to renew your passport online and what you’re entitled to if your flight is delayed or canceled.

What is a Real ID?

Essentially the Real ID is an enhanced version of your standard state driver’s license, intended to help authorities crack down on terrorism and identity fraud.

As of 2022, all 50 states and the District of Columbia comply with Real ID standards, so if you recently renewed your driver’s license it’s likely already compliant. If it’s been a few years, you’ll probably have to get it updated.

Real ID-approved licenses will have one of these stars on the upper-right corner.


Department of Homeland Security

You can tell by looking at your license: If there is a gold, black or white star in the upper-right corner, you have a Real ID. (There are some minor variations — California places a white star over the state’s bear logo, while Maine puts it in an outline of the state.)

How do I get a Real ID?

New Jersey license with Real ID star

The Real ID is not a separate form of identification but rather an enhancement to your standard driver’s license or other approved state ID.


DHS

Whatever state agency issued your driver’s license will be responsible for distributing Real IDs. The paperwork required may vary from state to state but typically includes proof of identity, residency and Social Security number. (Check your state’s driver’s licensing agency website for what documentation is required to apply for a Real ID.)

After you apply, you’ll receive a temporary paper ID until your Real ID-compliant license arrives in the mail, about three or four weeks later.

For the most part, the cost of getting a Real ID-compliant license is the same as renewing your license or non-driving ID. If you’re not due for a license renewal yet, though, you’ll have to pay now.

What happens once the Real ID Act starts being enforced? 

As of May 3, 2023, federal agencies, including the US Transportation Security Administration, will only accept Real ID-approved driver’s licenses and identification cards “for purposes of accessing federal facilities,” according to DHS, including airport security checkpoints.

Without one, US adults will have to show a valid passport, even to fly domestically.  

There are some exceptions, including Enhanced Driver’s Licenses, which are issued by Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Vermont and Washington state. EDLs are considered acceptable alternatives to Real ID-compliant cards.

The TSA will also accept these other forms of ID:

  • US Department of Defense ID
  • Permanent resident cards
  • Border crossing cards
  • Federally recognized, tribal-issued photo IDs

Can the Real ID be used for international travel instead of a US passport?

No. Real ID cards cannot be used for international travel or for border crossings into Canada or Mexico.

Do I need to get a Real ID-enhanced license to drive?

No, the Real ID is only for the purposes of securing domestic travel and access to federal facilities.  

Enforcement of the Real ID Act starting in May will not affect other uses of a driver’s license, including verifying an individual’s ability to operate a vehicle or proving they are of legal age to purchase alcohol or tobacco.

Does my child need a Real ID?

The Department of Homeland Security does not require children under the age of 18 to provide identification when traveling with an adult companion within the US.

If your child is a minor and traveling alone, they may need to bring a birth certificate or photo ID, depending on the airline. But it does not need to be a Real ID-approved license or identification card. 

Will getting a Real ID add me to a Homeland Security database?

No. The Real ID program only establishes a uniform set of security standards, according to DHS, not a national identification card or database.

“Each jurisdiction continues to issue its own unique license, maintains its own records, and controls who gets access to those records and under what circumstances,” according to the DHS website.  


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