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You’re Going to Need a Real ID by Next Year to Fly

AFAR logo AFAR 9/29/2020 Michelle Baran

a sign hanging off the side of a building: You’re Going to Need a Real ID by Next Year to Fly © Photo by Shutterstock You’re Going to Need a Real ID by Next Year to Fly

Starting next year, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will require travelers to present a Real ID–compliant driver’s license in order to fly domestically, which means your current driver’s license might not get you through security. Here’s what you need to know about whether you have the right kind of ID and how to get one if you don’t.

What is a Real ID and when exactly do I need it by?

A Real ID is a driver’s license or identification card that meets certain minimum security standards established by the Real ID Act in 2005 on the basis of a recommendation made by the 9/11 Commission following the September 11, 2001, attacks. The new standards are intended to ensure that identification cards are more secure.

To complicate matters, each state handles the issuance of driver’s licenses and identification cards independently, and each state had to individually apply to have its standards for processing Real IDs approved by the federal government. Thus, the standards vary slightly from state to state. But typically, the main difference in applying for and getting a Real ID–compliant license versus a noncompliant one lies in the documentation you need to provide.

For instance, to get a Real ID in California you will need to make an appointment at a California Department of Motor Vehicles office (you cannot obtain one online), provide an identifying document such as a passport or birth certificate, proof of your Social Security number, such as your Social Security card or a W-2 form, and proof of California residency, as outlined on this Real ID explainer portal on the California DMV website.

For a noncompliant license, you can renew online (versus having to go to a DMV office in person), and you don’t have to provide a Social Security card.

Massachusetts offers a convenient Real ID answers tool that allows users to follow a series of questions online to determine whether they should get a Real ID-compliant driver’s license or a standard driver’s license and the different processes required to obtain one or the other.

Each state has a similar explainer and a quick online search for your state and “Real ID” should put you on track to getting all the necessary details.

Whichever state you live in, starting October 1, 2021 (the deadline was extended one year due to the coronavirus pandemic), travelers 18 and older (kids traveling domestically with an adult currently don’t need identification) will be required to present a driver’s license that is considered Real ID–compliant when passing through airport security. (This is not a test, people.)

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If you don’t have a compliant ID by that date, you will have to show another acceptable form of ID to fly within the United States, such as a passport, permanent resident card, or Department of Homeland Security trusted traveler program card, such as Global Entry or Nexus.

How do you know if you have one?

According to TSA, compliant cards are typically marked with a star (either gold or black) in the upper portion of the card (see below). Compliant California IDs are marked with a star inside of an image of a bear. The agency recommends that people who aren’t sure whether they have a compliant ID contact their state driver’s license agency about how to obtain a compliant card.

a close up of a newspaper: Real ID–compliant driver’s licenses feature a star in the upper right-hand corner. © Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Real ID–compliant driver’s licenses feature a star in the upper right-hand corner.


diagram: California Real ID–compliant driver’s licenses feature a bear with a star embedded in it. © Courtesy of the California Department of Motor Vehicles California Real ID–compliant driver’s licenses feature a bear with a star embedded in it.

As states have begun issuing Real ID–compliant licenses and have marked compliant IDs with a gold or black star of some kind, they have also identified noncompliant IDs with a tag that states something like “federal limits apply” or “not for federal ID,” indicating that it is not a Real ID. (Note that those indications have only been introduced as each state made Real IDs available. Prior to that, there was no indication one way or another.)

An example of a noncompliant driver’s license © Courtesy of the California Department of Motor Vehicles An example of a noncompliant driver’s license

At this point, all 50 states are issuing Real ID–compliant licenses and identification cards.

What happens if I don’t have one?

This is where it gets serious—on October 1, 2021, if you are unable to provide a Real ID–compliant license or other acceptable form of ID, such as a valid passport or U.S. military ID, you will not be allowed to fly. Your wings will literally be clipped.

If you travel internationally and already have a passport, this won’t be such a big issue because your passport can serve as a stand-in until you obtain a Real ID–compliant driver’s license. But if you plan on flying domestically after October 1, 2021, and your passport has expired or you currently don’t have a passport, this is definitely something you should look into sooner than later to avoid potential crowds at your local driver’s license agency.

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