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Understanding the REAL ID Program

The Real ID Act, passed in 2005, called for driver’s licenses and ID cards with better security features. The need to improve security was established after the security breach on September 11, where hijackers got U.S. driver’s licenses based on false documents. This allowed them to bypass security in important buildings and airports.

To increase security and to do a better job of protecting the information of license holders, the Real ID Act defines clear minimum security requirements to issue licenses. The law details each and every document the applicant needs to receive credentials. 

Find out more about REAL IDs, what they can be used for and how to apply for them by reading the sections below.

Table of Contents:

What is a REAL ID?

The REAL ID is essentially a driver’s license that meets more security requirements than a standard license. That is why a REAL ID can be used to access certain federal buildings and board domestic flights without the need for a passport. 

Starting October 2021, standard driver’s licenses alone will not be considered sufficient identification for boarding domestic flights. However, a REAL ID or passport will satisfy the requirement. 

A REAL ID can be issued by states and must include the following information: 

When do I have to get a REAL ID?

You will not get a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license automatically. Most states offer both compliant and non-compliant licenses when you go to apply. You can choose one or the other.

You must get a REAL ID driver’s license by October 2021 if you intend to: 

Americans younger than 18 years of age do not need to provide any kind of identification to fly, but the person accompanying them will need to provide a TSA-approved ID, including a REAL ID, U.S. passport, U.S. passport card, permanent resident card, DHS trusted traveler card or border crossing card. 

Keep in mind that a REAL ID driver license is not required for other common application processes like registering to vote, applying for government benefits or getting health or life insurance. 

How to Identify a REAL ID-Compliant License

Real-ID compliant driver’s licenses have some specific marks to identify them compared to non-compliant documents. These marks include:

Another way to check whether your driver’s license is compliant is to look for these phases: “Not for Federal Identification” or “Federal Limits Apply.” If they appear, your license is not REAL ID-compliant. 

Note: States such as Michigan, Vermont, Minnesota, and New York offer enhanced driver’s licenses and REAL ID licenses. Both of them are acceptable for the above purposes. Washington only offers enhanced driver’s licenses. 

Learn How to Get a REAL ID

The REAL ID Act establishes the main requirements for getting a REAL ID license. You must provide documentation from all of the following categories:

If you have changed your name recently, you may also need to provide the original or a certified copy of your name change document, such as a marriage certificate or divorce decree.

You will also need to fill out the correct driver’s license application form, depending on whether you are requesting your driver’s license for the first time, renewing your document, replacing it or changing the address on it. 

Depending on which DMV process you are completing, you may also need to meet additional requirements.

Although the process may vary slightly from state to state, these are the main steps you will be required to follow:

1. Make an Appointment With the DMV

Generally, to get the process started you will need to schedule an appointment at your nearest DMV office. 

Depending on where you live, you may be able to start the application process online. States will allow you to set up your appointment at the nearest DMV office and submit personal documentation through their online portals. 

Currently, states such as California, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Massachusetts and South Carolina allow eligible license holders to start their Real ID application online.

In February, 2020, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that in order to help speed up the Real ID Act enforcement, states can allow their citizens to send digital copies of their documents to the DMV. However, the only state that currently allows for this is California. Although the service is currently available in only 23 offices, the state is hoping to extend the process to the rest of the state.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania offers locals the chance to pre-verify their Real ID license, which essentially means that, if you already have your first Pennsylvania driver’s license or permit, the documents you need to request your Real ID credentials are likely already in PennDOT’s database. 

In many cases, unless you qualify for a pre verification such as the program offered in Pennsylvania, you will likely need to visit a local DMV office at some point to complete the application process.

Note: Oregon and Oklahoma are still under an extension and do not yet provide REAL ID-compliant licenses and New Jersey’s process is still under review. If you live in these states, you may not be able to begin the application process right away.

2. Bring the Necessary Documents

On the date of your DMV appointment, you will need to bring the necessary documents as proof that you meet the requirements mentioned above. These include proof of identity, Social Security Number, address, legal status and date of birth.

If you have any issues or concerns with obtaining one or more of the documents, contact your local DMV.

3. Pay the Corresponding Fee to the DMV

The cost will vary depending on the state and the procedure you are completing, whether you are requesting a new license, a replacement, a renewal, etc.

About the New REAL ID Deadline

Since the REAL ID Act was passed in 2005, many states have fully integrated the program and become REAL ID-compliant. Several states have not. 

The deadline for when REAL ID requirements were to be fully in place (including for domestic travel) had been changed several times.

In March 2020, President Donald Trump announced that the deadline would be extended again in order to limit the number of people at DMVs and to follow social distancing requirements.

Later that month, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf set the new deadline for October 1, 2021

This new deadline means that anyone who wishes to fly domestically or enter federal facilities with a driver’s license after this date will need to have a REAL ID license. 

Until then, you can use your state-issued ID at the airport checkpoints to be able to fly domestically, if flights are available. Also, if you are required to travel domestically for essential reasons (not tourism) and have an expired driver’s license since March 1, and you are unable to renew it, the TSA will allow you to use it as a valid and acceptable form of ID. The document can be used for one year and two months after its expiration date.

By extending the REAL ID deadline, the DHS will also be able to work with Congress to see whether more changes are needed to help expedite the process.