Everything you need to know about getting a Real ID

Apr 2, 2021

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The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has announced a new deadline for implementing Real ID requirements: On Oct. 1, 2021, U.S. travelers must be Real ID-compliant to board domestic flights and access certain federal facilities with only a license.

The extended deadline should allow the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to accommodate backlog due to coronavirus-related closures and capacity limits. It will also allow the department to implement a plan to expedite the issuance of Real IDs once the current crisis is over.

If you’ve traveled through a U.S. airport any time in the last few years, you may have noticed signs near the security checkpoint reminding passengers about this upcoming change to photo ID requirements as a part of the Real ID Act. The law was originally intended to go into effect on Oct. 1, 2020, but former President Donald Trump extended that deadline 12 months due to the pandemic.

There’s been a lot of confusion about what the Real ID Act entails, who it affects and what you need to do before hitting the road. So, here’s everything you need to know about the upcoming Real ID requirement to ensure your travels go smoothly.

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Related: TPG’s coronavirus hub page

What is the Real ID Act?

In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress passed the Real ID Act to set clearer standards for government-issued photo ID.

The law established a uniform set of security standards for driver’s licenses and other government-issued ID cards and, most importantly, prohibits government agencies from accepting identification that does not meet the standards of the Real ID Act.

One of the goals was to add an extra layer of security to commercial aviation by making it more difficult for people to obtain false documents and use them to access airplanes.

Government agencies will require more documentation from an individual when issuing Real IDs, and the cards themselves are more advanced and, therefore, harder to forge.

Because each state currently has different standards and processes for issuing photo IDs, the law has taken more than a decade to implement. Several states and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have pushed back on the law, claiming that it constitutes overreach by the federal government.

Nevertheless, Real ID will officially go into effect on Oct. 1, giving you a few more months to make sure you have a compliant Real ID — or have plans to obtain one.

How to tell if you have a compliant Real ID

This law has been on the books for a while now, and many states have started issuing compliant Real IDs well before they’re federally required to do so. This means you might already have a Real ID, but there are a few easy ways you can check. Generally, IDs with a star or star cutout are Real ID-compliant

(Image courtesy of the TSA.)

However, if your ID is missing the star or says something to the effect of “federal limits apply” or “not for federal identification,” you do not have a compliant Real ID.

(Image courtesy of the TSA.)

As of now, all of the 50 U.S. states, along with Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands are issuing compliant IDs.

American Samoa is under review for REAL ID enforcement, allowing federal agencies to accept driver’s licenses and identification cards from American Samoa in the meantime.

Just because you live in a state that issues a Real ID doesn’t mean you’ll automatically receive one though. You may need to provide extra documentation, wait longer to receive the ID or even pay a higher processing fee.

This means you should double-check your ID right now to see if it’s compliant. If you’re still unsure, the DHS has a short quiz on its website to help you identify whether yours is compliant.

What Real ID means for airline passengers

When the Real ID act goes into effect, passengers will not be allowed through TSA security checkpoints without a compliant Real ID. If you aren’t interested in upgrading your driver’s license to a compliant version, you can still travel with a U.S. passport or any of the following TSA-approved forms of identification:

  • U.S. passport card
  • DHS trusted traveler card (Global Entry, NEXUS, SENTRI, FAST)
  • Permanent resident card
  • U.S. Department of Defense ID
  • Border-crossing card
  • State-issued Enhanced Driver’s License
  • Federally recognized, tribal-issued photo ID
  • HSPD-12 PIV card
  • Foreign government-issued passport
  • Canadian provincial driver’s license or Indian and Northern Affairs Canada card
  • Transportation worker identification credential
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services employment authorization card (I-766)
  • U.S. merchant mariner credential

Note that travelers under 18 do not need to provide identification when traveling with a companion, and this will not change under the Real ID Act. And while a Global Entry card will constitute a valid form of compliant photo ID, your TSA PreCheck card will not.

Related: The top credit cards for Global Entry and TSA PreCheck

When does the Real ID Act go into effect?

The Real ID Act is set to go into effect on Oct. 1, 2021, following a 12-month extension on the original deadline due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Do I need a Real ID if I’m enrolled in TSA PreCheck or Global Entry?

Yes. While your Global Entry card will count as a valid form of ID, you’ll need to bring it with you (or another compliant photo ID) when traveling even if you’re enrolled in one of these programs. Your TSA PreCheck card does not qualify.

Do I need a Real ID?

If you never fly and aren’t going to visit secure government facilities, Real IDs aren’t necessary and you don’t have to upgrade your ID. You can still vote, drive and access healthcare facilities like hospitals with noncompliant IDs. However, if you’re reading this site, you likely fly (or plan to), and thus will need a compliant Real ID unless you plan to always travel with a passport or another accepted form of documentation.

My state is compliant with Real ID. Does this mean my driver’s license is OK?

Not necessarily. Just because your state issues compliant IDs, doesn’t mean you received one. Make sure to check for the star or star cutout to confirm your ID is compliant.

The Real ID regulation requires that states recertify their compliance with the Act every three years, on a rolling basis, as determined by DHS.

Do I need a Real ID to fly if I’m under 18?

No, minors traveling with a companion do not need to present a photo ID (though their companion does).

How much does it cost to get a Real ID?

The cost varies by state, ranging from approximately $10 on the low end up to $85 to get a compliant ID.

Bottom line

If your driver’s license is already Real ID-compliant, you have nothing to worry about, as these upcoming changes won’t affect you at all. However, if your license isn’t up to the standard of the Real ID Act, you should strongly consider upgrading it as soon as possible to avoid crowds and long wait times.

The extension of the previous October 2020 deadline to Oct. 1, 2021, gives you a bit more time to make plans and ensure that you continue to be able to board your domestic flights without any problem (or needing to pack your passport).

Nick Ellis contributed to this post.

Featured photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images.

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