What the REAL ID Act Means For Your Travels In 2016

This post was originally published on Hipmunk’s Tailwind blog on November 23, 2015. 


If you’re planning to fly after 2015, heads up: A driver’s license might not be sufficient identification for boarding an aircraft, even if you’re flying domestically.

That’s because new restrictions on IDs used to board commercial aircraft are slated to take effect sometime in 2016. It’s the next and final phase of the REAL ID Act, which was enacted in 2005 by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to establish federal security standards for government-issued IDs. Here’s what you need to know to be able to breeze through security even after the new regulations take effect.


A Primer on REAL ID

According to the DHS, REAL ID is the result of a 9/11 Commission recommendation that the federal government establish regulations to improve the accuracy of state-issued identification documents.

The act lays out standards for the production and distribution of identification cards and prohibits federal agencies, commercial aircraft, and nuclear power plants from accepting identification that doesn’t meet those standards. The regulations apply to 56 jurisdictions, including all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Territories of American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

The new rules require that every driver’s license contain the following information:

  • Full legal name
  • Residential address
  • Birth date
  • Gender
  • Driver’s license/identification card number
  • Digital front-facing photograph
  • Signature
  • A barcode
  • A star in the upper-right-hand corner which signifies that the cardholder’s identification has been verified
  • Security devices that help prevent anyone from tampering with or counterfeiting a card

Requirements for issuing IDs have gotten stricter too, as new applicants are required to present a birth certificate, social security number, proof of U.S. citizenship (or proof of temporary residence within the U.S.), and an ID that includes the applicant’s full legal name and birth date.

Sounds straightforward enough, right? Not so fast. Shortly after REAL ID went into effect, 17 states passed laws restricting or outright banning the implementation of the act’s regulations within their borders. These laws stemmed from worries over the costs required to overhaul existing ID systems as well as privacy concerns (REAL ID requires that states share their databases of licensed drivers—including all information that appears on the licenses and the driving records and histories of everyone licensed to drive—with all other states). Because different states are at different stages of compliance, the act’s effects have gotten a bit murky.


What You Need to Know Before Traveling

So what does all of this mean for the average traveler? It depends partly on where you’re from and the kind of ID you already have on hand. Here’s a breakdown of the most critical information as it pertains to compliance with REAL ID.

  • The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will continue to accept driver’s licenses and other state-issued identifications cards “at least until 2016.” It’s unclear exactly when the new regulations will go into effect, but the DHS has promised to give the public advance notice.
  • Currently, one territory and several states are deemed “non-compliant,” meaning IDs from those places may not qualify as acceptable identification in the airport. Driver’s licenses from New York, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Louisiana, and American Samoa lack the security features required under REAL ID, so travelers with these licenses may be asked to show a secondary ID (more on that below).
  • Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington have all passed laws banning the implementation of REAL ID within state borders, which means IDs from these states may also be deemed insufficient for air travel. These states have received extensions to give them time to comply with the act, but it’s unclear whether any of them will choose to do so.
  • Travelers with licenses from any of the aforementioned states or territories may be required to show a secondary ID in order to pass through airport security. Acceptable forms of secondary ID include a passport, a passport card, military ID, permanent U.S. resident cards, an Enhanced Driver’s License (EDL), or trusted traveler cards issued by the Global Entry, NEXUS, or SENTRI programs. An up-to-date list of acceptable IDs can be found on the TSA’s website.
  • Condé Nast Traveler reports that there will be a three-month grace periodafter the regulations take effect during which the public will have time to adjust to the new regulations.
  • Anyone planning to travel internationally shouldn’t have to worry. Since international travel already requires a passport, your ID will be compliant with REAL ID regulations.
  • Still have questions? Reach out to the DHS’ Office of State Issued Identification Support by emailing osiis@dhs.gov.

While people with driver’s licenses from the states not listed here shouldn’t have to worry about presenting secondary IDs prior to boarding, the best way to avoid worrying about the REAL ID Act (no matter what state you’re from) is to invest in a passport and bring it along for every trip. (If you’ve never obtained a passport before, read up on the passport basics.) Not only will having this form of identification prevent headaches prior to boarding, but it will open up a whole wide world of international travel. As far as government red tape goes, that’s a pretty great silver lining.

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