Beginning in May, if you’re taking a domestic flight in the US and want to use your driver’s license as identification, you’ll have to show a Real ID-approved license to board the plane.
Signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007, the Real ID Act mandates more consistent and secure standards for federal identification used for air travel and entering federal facilities. The Department of Homeland Security was initially going to start enforcing the act 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 May 3, 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.
May might feel far off, but seven months slip by faster than you realize. And with many Department of Motor Vehicle offices still requiring appointments, you don’t want to leave it to the last minute. And even if you’re already renewing your license before then, you’ll likely need to bring more 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.
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 are complying 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.
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?
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 (TSA), will only accept Real ID-approved 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.
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 instead of a US passport for international travel?
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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