What is the Real ID act?

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Flying looks a lot different now than it did pre-pandemic. Airlines have instituted varying degrees of mask mandates and new boarding procedures. At the same time, the TSA now instructs travelers to scan their boarding passes and maintain social distancing in security lines.

But another significant change to the way we fly is coming, and it’s one that could affect countless U.S. flyers: Federal ID requirements for domestic air travel under the Real ID Act of 2005. The good news, though, is that you have plenty of time to prepare for it.

Keep reading to learn more about the Real ID law and what it means for you.

What is a Real ID?

A Real ID is a driver’s license or another form of identification that meets the federal guidelines outlined in the Real ID Act of 2005.

What is the purpose of the Real ID Act?

President George W. Bush signed the Real ID Act of 2005 to fulfill a recommendation from the 9/11 Commission that the federal government “set standards for the issuance of birth certificates and sources of identification, such as driver’s licenses” to help protect against identity fraud and forgery.

Among other things, the Real ID Act established minimum security requirements for the distribution and production of driver’s licenses and other state-issued IDs. It also prevented federal agencies like the TSA from accepting “for official purposes” any ID that doesn’t pass muster. Those “official purposes” include accessing federal facilities such as nuclear power plants, military bases, courthouses, and — you guessed it — airport security checkpoints.

When will the Real ID laws take effect?

The Department of Homeland Security began a gradual rollout of the Real ID Act in 2014. But the cutoff date to begin enforcement of the final phase, at which point you’ll have to present a compliant ID to fly within the U.S., has been pushed back again and again, leaving some travelers confused about what they need to do and when they need to do it.

We’ll get into the details of “what” a little further down the page, but here’s the when: As of now, “the new deadline for REAL ID enforcement is October 1, 2021,” the Department of Homeland Security announced in April. The new date postponed the previous target by another year in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Do you need a Real ID to fly?

That depends. If you already have a TSA-approved ID — such as a valid passport, a Global Entry traveler card, a military ID, or a permanent resident card — you don’t need to worry about obtaining a Real ID before the deadline. So long as the ID is unexpired, you’ll be able to fly domestically within the U.S. (Note: International travel will still require a current passport.)

But if all you have is a standard license or non-driver’s ID without a star marking at the top (which denotes that it’s a Real ID), it won’t be accepted as proof of identity come October 1, 2021. In most cases, that means you’ll be turned away from the security checkpoint and won’t be allowed to board your flight.

(An exception: Enhanced driver’s licenses, which are marked with a flag rather than a star, are also considered Real ID-compliant. However, only Michigan, Vermont, Minnesota, New York and Washington state currently issue them.)

How to get a Real ID on your driver’s license

The most significant difference between getting a Real ID and a standard driver’s license (or non-driver’s ID) is the paperwork. Although requirements vary from state to state, at a minimum, you’ll need to bring the following documents with you to the DMV:

  • two proofs of residency, such as a utility bill, bank statement, W-2 or property tax receipt
  • proof of identity and legal status, such as a birth certificate, current passport or certificate of citizenship
  • a Social Security card or other document showing your full name and Social Security number, such as a W-2 or pay stub
  • proof of name change (if applicable), such as a marriage certificate or court order

Depending on where you live, you may need to make a DMV appointment to get your Real ID. That said, appointments are recommended even if they’re not required, particularly since many field offices still have restricted opening hours or are experiencing heavy foot traffic during the pandemic. Plus, having an appointment can limit your wait time at the office, which is another way to practice safe social distancing.

How long it takes to get your Real ID also varies by state. In Missouri, for instance, the Department of Revenue warns applicants that processing and mailing time is typically 10 to 15 days; in California, though, it could take up to two months. The lesson: Don’t wait until the last minute to make an appointment, lest you risk not receiving it in time to fly.

Check with your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles or Department of Revenue for more guidance about the Real ID process.

How much does it cost to get a Real ID?

Once again, the cost of a Real ID varies by state. Illinois residents, for example, pay the same fees for a Real ID as they would for a standard driver’s license or non-driver’s ID ($30 and $20, respectively). If you apply outside of the renewal period, though, you’ll also face a $5 change fee. Pennsylvanians, meanwhile, have to pay a one-time $30 fee on top of the usual renewal fee.

We recommend contacting your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles or Department of Revenue to find out the exact cost.

Bottom line

As you can see, Real ID requirements are slightly different depending on your state of residence. USA.gov offers a handy list of links to applicable DOR or DMV websites in all 55 U.S. states and territories — if you’re looking for information specific to where you live, that’s a good place to start. In any case, the most important thing to remember is this: Effective October 1, 2021, you’ll need to have a Real ID-compliant license or other TSA-approved ID to board a domestic flight within the U.S.

To avoid the nightmare scenario of showing up at the airport and being turned away by TSA, begin the process of upgrading to a Real ID early. Missing a beach vacation or winter getaway would be a much more significant inconvenience compared with spending an hour at the DMV, right?

Featured image by FrameStockFootages/Shutterstock.

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Kelli Pate is a contributor to Million Mile Secrets, she covers topics on points and miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels, and general travel.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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