Have you heard about REAL ID?
Starting next year, a whole new set of standards goes into effect for issuing certain kinds of identification documents in the United States, most notably driver’s licenses. At that time, you will need a REAL ID-compliant form of identification to board a commercial aircraft or enter many federal buildings.
There have been multiple deadlines for REAL ID to go into effect, the most recent of which was pushed back due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, however, it looks like the 2023 deadline is actually going to stick. If you’re a US citizen or lawful resident and haven’t yet gotten your REAL ID, there’s no better time to familiarize yourself, decide if it’s right for you, and start taking steps to obtain one.
Today, I want to answer a few common questions about REAL ID to help you do just that.
What is REAL ID?
The REAL ID Act was passed to create a set of minimum security standards for issuing driver’s licenses and other identity documents across the United States. Where previously each state was responsible for setting its own licensing requirements, the federal government mandated a single standard in 2005 in the wake of 9/11 and the War on Terror.
Your REAL ID basically signifies that you have provided the required additional documentation to prove that you are who you say you are. Real ID compliance is indicated by the presence of a symbol on the upper portion of the identification card. Most states and territories are using gold or black stars, like on my Pennsylvania REAL ID-compliant driver’s license below. (And then there’s California, which is using a bear with a star on its hindquarters. To each his own, I suppose.)
REAL ID-compliant cards also include a scannable strip that can be read by machine, rather like a passport. While some states’ licenses already had this, it is now mandated across the nation.
Where will REAL ID be required?
Once the Act takes effect, you will need a REAL ID or acceptable alternative to enter certain federal buildings and facilities as well as to board a commercial aircraft in the United States. You will also need to present a REAL ID to gain entry into nuclear power plants.
Federal buildings that don’t currently require identification, such as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., will not be affected.
Who can get a REAL ID?
Any US citizen age eighteen or older is eligible to obtain a REAL ID, as are legal residents of the United States, whether permanent (Green Card holders) or temporary. Children under eighteen do not need a REAL ID, as they are not required to present identification to board an aircraft.
Do I have to get a REAL ID?
You don’t. Technically, obtaining a REAL ID is optional, and there are alternative forms of identification that you can use. (More on that below.) Your regular driver’s license is also perfectly acceptable for driving a car.
That said, it’s probably a good idea. The biggest impact for most people will be the felt at the airport, so if you are a frequent domestic flier you probably will want to consider going through the process. Personally, although it required a little more time and effort up front to gather the documentation and make the appointment, I think it was worth getting the REAL ID just so I don’t have to worry about it in future.
What are the acceptable alternatives to REAL ID?
If you choose not to get a REAL ID, you can use a United States passport, passport card, military ID, or an Enhanced Driver’s License. (Enhanced Driver’s Licenses are issued in Washington, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and Vermont.)
When do I have to have my REAL ID?
REAL ID requirements will take effect starting on May 3, 2023. While you don’t have to have your REAL ID by that date – you can still use the alternatives listed above – your regular license will no longer be accepted at airport security and those particular federal buildings and power plants.
If you already have a passport, passport card, military ID, or Enhanced Driver’s License, I suggest just getting REAL ID the next time your driver’s license is up for renewal. If you don’t, or if you have more than a couple of years left on your license, or if you just want to get it over with, I suggest taking care of your REAL ID as soon as is convenient for you.
How much does a REAL ID cost?
It depends on the state. At a minimum, you’ll probably have to pay for the standard renewal of your driver’s license or identification card. Some states also tack on a REAL ID fee. Pennsylvania, for example, charges a one-time REAL ID fee of $30. Lucky me! Add that to my normal $30.50 license renewal fee, and my REAL ID cost me $60.50.
Again, it varies state by state, so you could end up paying more or less.
How do I get a REAL ID?
In order to obtain a REAL ID, you will need to provide certain documents that prove your identity. REAL ID requirements and processes vary from state to state, so your best bet is to check your home state’s driver licensing agency or department of driver and vehicle services to see what documents you need to have in hand.
As a resident of Pennsylvania, my state’s REAL ID requirements necessitated that I bring my passport, Social Security card, and two documents proving my address (I used my driver’s license and a utility bill in my name). Because I changed my last name after I got married, I also had to bring my marriage certificate. I could have provided my birth certificate in place of my passport, and there were other proofs of address that I could have used, but the above were the documents that were easiest for me to provide. (Please note that non-citizens may be able to use permanent resident cards and foreign passports to prove their identities, but there also may be additional documentation required.)
Once I had my documents together, I went to the nearest DMV offering REAL ID services*. I needed to renew my license anyway, so I just took care of all of it in one fell swoop. The agent examined and made copies of my documents, and then I received another document to take to the license renewal desk. A couple more stamps, a new license photo, and I had my REAL ID! Honestly, gathering all the paperwork had been the hardest part.
Hopefully, your state will have a similarly streamlined process, but make sure to check.
*At the time, only certain Pennsylvania DMV locations were processing REAL ID’s. Now, it appears that you can visit any office in the state.
I got my REAL ID in 2019, back when the original enactment date was scheduled for October of 2021. Even though I’ve spent two years not needing it, I’m still glad I went through the process when I did and that I will have the designation moving forward. As the May 3, 2023 effective date draws closer, I highly encourage you to consider doing the same. A little bit of extra work – tedious as it may seem – will go a long way in saving you hassle at the airport or if you need to enter a government building. Here’s to REAL ID 2023!
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