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You’ve probably noticed signs posted at airports and government offices about how REAL ID is coming. You may have also heard people say that you need it now or that your state is not in compliance. While it’s meant to streamline safety and security, it’s left many asking, “what is REAL ID?” and “when does it take effect?” In this post and video, I’m hoping to provide some clarity to these questions!

What is REAL ID?

The REAL ID Act was passed by Congress in 2005 in response to September 11th in an effort to standardize official identifications issued across the US such as driver’s licenses. The goal was to establish minimum security standards. The idea was that it would result in safer domestic air travel by making it easier to identify fake IDs by incorporating additional security information.

Los Angeles Times article about the issues surrounding REAL ID

REAL ID has not been embraced by a lot of states or even groups advocating privacy. These groups are concerned that personal data will end up in the hands of a central national database. Though the federal government contends that they are simply providing a standard set of requirements for all official IDs. They assert that data will not be stored in a central database.

When does REAL ID take effect?

The official date – October 1, 2020

Officially, you’ll need to provide a form of identification that is REAL ID compliant on domestic flights starting in October 2020.

However, the date on the DHS website lists January 2018 as the start date. It’s very confusing! DHS says that if you’re from a state that isn’t compliant, then you would need to provide additional information starting in 2018. Though most states are in compliance, and those that are not, have asked for extensions.

The January 2018 date has confused a lot of travelers!

So why does DHS distinguish between an October 2020 and January 2018 date? My guess is that states that are behind on the compliance effort will continue to ask for extensions rather than having to deal with passengers who are denied onto flights before October 2020. It could technically happen, but I think it’s highly unlikely. I think the only state where there is a risk is California since they are currently in under review status.

California’s REAL ID situation

California’s situation is confusing. The state was previously in compliance and started to issue REAL IDs last year. However, DHS then said that California’s proof of residency checks were insufficient, so the state was placed in review status.

I think it’s going to get sorted out. California has already started to ask for more documentation when getting a REAL ID. I would be surprised if they’re not marked green or yellow on the DHS compliance chart soon.

It’s confusing that DHS has conflicting statements on the implementation date. It would be more effective to just publicize the October 2020 date as that’s when things are officially changing.

What qualifies as a REAL ID?

You will need to have some form of REAL ID by October 2020. The good news is that you don’t have to get a REAL ID driver’s license if you already have another REAL ID compliant identification, such as a Global Entry card, Passport, US Passport Card, Enhanced Driver’s License, and several others.

TSA’s list of acceptable IDs for air travel

If you already have Global Entry, you technically have a REAL-ID complaint identification card. If you don’t have Global Entry, I highly suggest getting it, especially if you have a credit card that will pay for it.

It’s possible that you already have a REAL ID compliant identification in your wallet

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How to tell whether your driver’s license is REAL ID compliant

In most states, you’ll see a gold or black star on the front of the license, though that’s not always the case. Another way to know if you have a real ID is to check whether the ID says “Not for Federal Identification” or “Federal Limits Apply”. If you see that disclaimer on your driver’s license, then you do NOT have a REAL ID. Ironically, my driver’s license, which I renewed in 2016, doesn’t have the disclaimer or star symbol. However, I know it’s not REAL ID compliant. Again, it’s very confusing!

REAL ID compliant driver’s licenses usually feature a star symbol

Getting a REAL ID driver’s license

If you want to get a REAL ID compliant driver’s license, then you’ll need to go to your DMV in-person and bring along additional documentation:

I recommend bringing two proof of residency documents as some states, such as California, require multiple and different proofs of residency.

You’ll want to check with your local DMV to see if they have additional requirements to get a REAL ID compliant driver’s license.

Additional tips and considerations

1. Check your state’s status:

REAL ID state compliance status as of April 2019

You’ll want to check the DHS website to find out your state’s REAL ID status. As of April 2019, eight states and territories are under extension, one is under review, and the rest are compliant. California residents, in particular, should keep an eye out for an update on their state’s status.

2. Real ID applies to domestic travel and federal facilities:

Having a REAL ID will not only be a requirement for domestic air travel, but also for entering federal buildings, military bases, and nuclear power plants.

3. REAL ID does not replace a passport:

You’ll still need a traditional passport to travel internationally

While a REAL ID is required to board a domestic flight starting in October 2020, you’ll still need a passport book to travel internationally. A REAL ID driver’s license does not replace your passport.

Also, while Passport Cards are considered REAL ID compliant, you still need a traditional passport book to travel internationally via air travel.

4. Kids do not need a REAL ID:

Man helping a child with coloring a book
Children under the age of 18 do NOT need a REAL ID when traveling with an adult

Children under the age of 18 do not need to provide identification when traveling with an adult companion. Though the adult companion will need to show their ID. However, you’ll want to contact the airlines for any other specific guidelines or requirements. For example, some airlines require documentation on a child’s age before they can board a flight.

5. Enhanced drivers licenses are REAL ID compliant:

Several states issue an identification card known as an “enhanced driver’s license”. These enhanced driver’s licenses are similar to passport cards and can prove US citizenship. However, many do not have the star marking found on other REAL ID compliant driver’s licenses. Rest assured — enhanced driver’s licenses are all REAL ID compliant.

6. REAL ID state identification cards are also available:

State IDs are an option if you don’t drive

You might be asking, “What do I do if I don’t even have a driver’s license?” If you don’t drive, you can get a state ID from your DMV. These often resemble a driver’s license but are meant to serve solely as a state ID. These are available and can be REAL ID compliant by following the same process and providing the documentation listed above.

Final thoughts

The rollout and preparation for REAL ID have not been smooth. It wasn’t until I researched this topic that I even understood when things are scheduled to change. Since my driver’s license expires in 2020, I’ll likely opt to get the REAL ID version. Though in case there’s any delay, it’s nice knowing that I’m covered by other IDs like my passport and Global Entry card.

Have you had to get a new license in order to be REAL ID compliant? Has the process been confusing to you as well?

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Trip Astute has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Trip Astute and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. 

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