State-issued IDs May No Longer Be Enough to Board U.S. Flights


A TSA official checks the identification of passengers prior to entering a security checkpoint at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

If you are planning to travel anywhere by plane after Jan. 22, 2018, you may need a passport, even if you're not leaving the United States. That's because the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) starts enforcing the REAL ID Act for all passengers going through security checkpoints at commercial airports in the United States.

The REAL ID Act?

What in the heck is the REAL ID Act, you ask? It's a law designed to set standards for federal identification by recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. The act was passed by Congress way back in 2005, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the phased rollout in December 2013. Though most states and territories are already compliant (or have extensions), many Americans are unaware that their state-issued IDs may no longer be enough to board a commercial airplane.

"The REAL ID Act establishes minimum security standards for state-issued driver's licenses and identification cards, and prohibits Federal agencies from accepting ... licenses and identification cards from states that do not meet these standards," Anna Franko, a spokesperson for DHS, says via email. "These standards also [require] that issuing agencies check with other jurisdictions to ensure that applicants are not using multiple state driver's licenses and IDs to commit identity fraud." The Act also sets standards for state-issued credentials for accessing federal facilities, such as nuclear power plants.

When Does It Go into Effect and For Who?

As of Jan. 19, 2018, 28 state IDs were compliant with the REAL ID Act, and 26 states and territories had extensions. Only two territories (the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa) were still under review for extensions.

However, those extensions technically expire on Jan. 22, 2018, though the states have another grace period until Oct. 1. Despite that timeframe, anecdotal evidence suggests many Americans are unsure how the REAL ID Act could affect them, or are unaware of the act entirely.

The DHS began implementing the four-phase rollout of the law in December 2013 after reaching out to the public and coordinating compliance with the states. Phase 4, which focuses on commercial aviation, began in 2016, and according to Franko, breaks down in this order:

  • July 15, 2016, the TSA coordinated with airlines to begin issuing notifications to travelers
  • Dec. 15, 2016, the TSA increased signage and handouts at airports
  • Jan. 22, 2018, passengers with a driver's license issued by a non-compliant state that has not been granted an extension will need to show alternative identification for domestic air travel (such as a passport)
  • Oct. 1, 2018, everyone will need a REAL ID-compliant license, or another acceptable form of identification, for domestic air travel

Is My ID Still Acceptable?

If you're wondering why the federal government might not consider your state-issued ID good enough for boarding an airplane, you're not alone. After 9/11, the federal government decided that some states' driver's licenses — which most people use as their default form of identification — aren't "secure" enough. At the crux of the issue is that state-issued IDs are allotted by 56 different states and territories with 56 different standards.

"Driver's licenses were originally developed to prove that an individual is qualified to operate a motor vehicle," Franko explains. "[The Real ID Act] establishes minimum standards that states must use to document the identity, lawful presence, Social Security number and address of principal residence of an individual if the state-issued credential is to be accepted by Federal agencies."

What Does That Mean Next Time I Fly?

Starting Jan. 22, 2018, if your driver's license or ID is from a state or U.S. territory that's non-compliant (remember currently only two are, the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa, though 26 states have extensions only until Oct. 1 to be fully compliant) TSA will require you provide another ID, such as a passport. But as of Oct. 1, 2018, everyone traveling must have a REAL ID-compliant driver's license or alternate acceptable identification to fly anywhere in the United States.

Aside from a federally issued passport, the Department of Homeland Security lists several other accepted forms of ID that are compliant, including:

  • DHS "trusted traveler" card (such as Global Entry)
  • Department of Defense ID
  • Permanent resident card
  • Border crossing card
  • Federally recognized tribal photo ID
  • HSPD-12 PIV card (a form of ID for employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture)
  • Canadian driver's license
  • Indian and Northern Affairs Canada card
  • Transportation worker ID
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services employment authorization card
  • U.S. Merchant Marine ID

The REAL ID Act does not affect minors — TSA does not require children under 18 to provide identification when traveling with an adult within the United States. And non-compliant driver's licenses can still be used to vote or for other identification purposes.

If your state is one of those still in a grace extension and you haven't already been issued a new driver's license, you may have to get one in the near future. "Based on the successful experience of compliant states issuing REAL ID-compliant licenses ... the remaining non-compliant states and territories all committed to full compliance," Franko says.


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