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Mandatory ‘REAL ID’ is Coming: What it Means for Air Travelers

By Kelly Hoggan

REAL ID-compliant driver's licenses usually have a gold and white star graphic on them.

On October 1, 2020 your state’s standard driver’s license or ID card alone may not be good enough to get you through a Transportation Security Administration airport checkpoint and onto a domestic flight. That’s because the REAL ID Act, created by Congress and enacted in May of 2005, required driver’s licenses and other state ID cards to meet federal rules for acceptance for “official purposes.” Such purposes include boarding domestic flights in the U.S. Passports, which already meet REAL ID requirements, are used for international travel and are acceptable for domestic travel as well.

In short, if you don’t possess a driver’s license or state-issued identification card or other ID which meets the REAL ID Act’s minimum standards, it won’t count as a primary means of identification. Without REAL ID-compliant identification, security rules require that you present a passport or passport card to fly in the U.S. Here, it’s also important to note that more paperwork is involved to obtain a state-issued ID card such as a driver’s license which is REAL ID-compliant.

Generally, and at minimum, an official birth certificate with a raised seal is needed to obtain one of the new compliant ID’s. However, if your name today is different than what’s on your birth certificate, you’ll usually need to supply what states call “certified name-change documents” such as a marriage license or court order.

Some states may require even more proof of your legal residency within the U.S. when you apply for a compliant ID card or an enhanced identification card which meets REAL ID requirements. Such proof may consist of documents that verify your identification, including your current driver’s license, a valid U.S. military identification card or a government (federal, state, county, municipal) employee card.

You may also need to present either your Social Security card, a pay stub showing your complete SSN or a W-2 form that also shows your full Social Security number. Check with your state’s local DMV office or website for full requirements.

States also still offer their citizens the option to stick with standard driver’s licenses or state ID cards, on the theory that if they don’t fly commercially, they won’t want or need such enhanced IDs. Going with a ‘regular state-issued ID’ is, after all, less burdensome in terms of paperwork and proof of legal residency requirements. But it remains to be seen whether sticking with a standard ID card is a wise decision for people these days, as you never know if you’ll need to fly for business or a family emergency and the like.

At time of publication, all but four of the 50 states are following REAL ID Act requirements, and those four are operating under federal extensions of varying length. The states not following REAL ID Act requirements – Maine, Oregon, New Jersey and Oklahoma – say they’re working hard to meet the law’s deadline of October 1, 2020. That’s good, because the federal government says no additional extensions will be authorized past that date. All five U.S. territories are already issuing compliant identification as well.

What can you do if you let the October 2020 deadline slip past and you don’t have identification complying with the Real ID Act, but you still need to travel domestically and don’t have a passport or passport card? Apparently, you’re stuck going by automobile, bus, train or some other form of non-airline transport, as none of those fall under the “official purposes” section of the 2005 act.

TSA and its boss, the Department of Homeland Security, are both serious about enforcing the new enhanced ID requirements, too. From DHS: (starting October 1, 2020) “every air traveler will need a REAL ID-compliant license, or other acceptable form of identification (such as a United States passport, United States passport card, U.S. military [ID] card, or DHS trusted traveler card, e.g. NEXUS, SENTRI, etc.).”

So: if you’re an air traveler and you don’t have valid REAL ID, plan on visiting your state’s DMV, or obtaining a passport or similar qualifying document, before October 1, 2020 or you may find yourself waving at your flight as it leaves without you.

Kelly Hoggan, Founder and CEO of H4 Solutions, previously served as assistant administrator for operations at the Transportation Security Administration. In that role, he was responsible for aircraft and checkpoint security operations at the nation's 400-plus commercial airports.

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