Deadline for REAL IDs, required for domestic U.S. travel, is less than 6 months away

(Photo Illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; Photos: DHS, Lindsey Nicholson/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images, Ted S. Warren/AP)

Americans looking to travel by air domestically or enter federal government facilities without showing a U.S. passport will need to obtain a REAL ID, an updated driver’s license that complies with new federal standards, by May 3, 2023.

Obtaining a REAL ID isn’t mandatory for every U.S. citizen, and current driver’s licenses aren’t going away. States that are REAL ID-compliant are still allowed to issue licenses that aren’t considered REAL IDs, so it’s important to clarify with the Department of Motor Vehicle that you are specifically requesting a REAL ID. The Department of Homeland Security advises people to mention it when making an in-person appointment at the agency.

“It is mostly a matter of convenience. Most Americans are not accustomed to carrying their passports unless they are planning to leave the country. You would have to remember to bring it with you to visit a federal facility as well,” Sabrina Cervantes, a California assembly member, said in an FAQ on her website.

Who is required to get one?

A sign explaining the REAL ID
A sign explaining the REAL ID, which is issued to people who can prove they are legal residents of the United States. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

The DHS says air travelers 18 and older will need a REAL ID-compliant driver's license instead of a regular one in order to get past security checkpoints to fly domestically. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the original Oct. 1 deadline to obtain a REAL ID was moved up to May 3, 2023.

Those with TSA PreCheck or who have enrolled in CLEAR will still need a REAL ID or other acceptable form of ID to fly domestically. Anyone without the proper identification will be turned away at the security checkpoint.

Children under the age of 18, however, will not be required to obtain a REAL ID. The Transportation Security Administration does not require children to provide identification when traveling domestically with a companion.

Why do I need one? Why were REAL IDs created?

Homeland Security sign for REAL ID
A sign for REAL ID at the entrance to a TSA security area, West Palm Beach, Fla. (Lindsey Nicholson/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The creation of the REAL ID requirement stemmed from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In 2005, Congress approved The REAL ID Act, revising the minimum standards for driver’s licenses and state IDs in an attempt to strengthen security on domestic flights and at government buildings. After the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2002, it spearheaded the push to update the identification requirements.

The terrorists responsible for 9/11 “used unverified driver’s licenses to take flight lessons and board the planes on the morning of September 11. In fact, 18 of the 19 hijackers had acquired some form of fraudulent ID, including 30 driver’s licenses from various states,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said on his website.

How do I get a REAL ID?

Americans can get a REAL ID by visiting a local DMV office in-person, but some states are also allowing renewals online. Check your state’s DMV website for details, such as what documentation is required to obtain a REAL ID. At a minimum, applicants must provide documentation showing a person’s full legal name, date of birth, Social Security number, proof of principal residence and lawful citizenship status.

In North Carolina, for example, proof of residency can be established by using any document issued by the state or federal government, a financial statement of some sort, a pay stub or a receipt showing that real estate property taxes have been paid. You can also use a utility or cable bill, mortgage statement, property or income tax statement, a state vehicle registration card or title, a voter card, vehicle insurance policy, school records or a letter from a homeless shelter, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

Each state is in charge of handling the dissemination of REAL IDs and imposing additional requirements, so it’s important to double check for one's own location.

How do REAL IDs look different from regular driver’s licenses?

A sample New York State driver license
A sample REAL ID from the state of New York. (Department of Homeland Security)

It might be hard to tell the difference between old licenses and the new ones at first glance, but REAL IDs are marked with a star on the upper right corner of the card. Their appearance will differ depending on the state that issues them, but the star should be easily recognizable, typically with the colors white, gold or black.

California’s is unique in that the star is positioned inside an image of a bear. Other states use a simple star.

Will this make traveling safer?

While the success of the program will take years to adequately assess, the DHS is confident that REAL IDs will result in safer domestic air travel and more secure government buildings.

“Secure driver’s licenses and identification documents are a vital component of our national security framework,” the agency states on its website.

What about my personal information?

The federal government claims that the new standards are not for the purpose of obtaining new and more detailed information on American citizens. Rather, officials say, the purpose is to make documents more “consistent and secure.”

“REAL ID does not create a federal database of driver license information. 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,” the DHS said on its website.