December 4, 2019

Real ID Deadline is Coming


  • Americans planning to fly on or after October 1, 2020, must show an enhanced form of identification called a “Real ID,” or they will have to bring another accepted document such as a passport.
  • The requirement is for people boarding a commercial aircraft, entering a federal facility, or accessing a nuclear power plant.
  • All states are on track to comply with the law by offering the new ID cards, but 73% of cards in circulation are still not compliant, and 57% of Americans are unaware they will need a new ID.

Beginning October 1, 2020, Americans must have an enhanced form of identification called a “Real ID” to board an airplane or access federal facilities. Real ID driver’s licenses and personal identification cards must meet security standards required by the 2005 REAL ID Act. Yet many Americans have not gotten a compliant card. According to the Department of Homeland Security, 73% of ID cards do not meet the law’s standards. A recent survey found that 57% of people are unaware they will need one to board a plane starting next October. Federal agencies and the travel industry are trying to increase awareness of the deadline.

Millions of Americans Are Unprepared for Real ID

Real ID

what is real id?

The Real ID law set minimum security standards states must follow when issuing driver’s licenses and non-driver ID cards. The goal was to make sure people getting state-issued IDs are who they say they are. When people go to the department of motor vehicles to get a Real ID card, they have to bring documents proving their identity, date of birth, Social Security number, where they live, and that they are in the United States lawfully. States have to design the ID cards with security features to prevent people from altering, tampering with, or reproducing them. The cards must have a machine-readable barcode, and they generally are denoted with some form of a star near the top.

Look for the Star

Real ID

Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington issue “enhanced driver’s licenses” that do not have a star. The Transportation Security Administration will accept these from air travelers after the deadline.

Federal regulations issued under the REAL ID Act also set standards for how long states must keep records related to the IDs, and they require states to keep a DMV database. States must submit security plans for the documents and information they receive, as well as for the buildings where they make the licenses and ID cards, like DMV offices. Employees at these facilities have to pass background checks and receive training on how to detect fraudulent documents. DHS determines when the states are in compliance with the law.

The law permits states to issue driver’s licenses or identification cards that are not Real IDs to residents when their identity or legal residence in the United States cannot be verified. Fourteen states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico currently issue driver’s licenses or identification cards to illegal immigrants. These identification cards cannot be used as a Real ID, and they have to state this on the card. States also must use a different color or similar way of differentiating them from a Real ID.

DHS cautions against assuming that the lack of a Real ID necessarily means a person is not present in the United States legally.

national security and real id

Real ID was a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission to prevent terrorists from using commercial aircraft as weapons in a future attack. All but one of 9/11 hijackers had a state-issued identification card, some of them obtained by fraud. The 9/11 terrorist hijackers may have been able to get a REAL ID, however, as they received approved visas from the U.S. government, either for tourist, business, or student applications.

While a Real ID will be one of the documents a person can present at an airport security checkpoint, it is not the only one. TSA lists more than a dozen forms of identification other than Real ID that will be allowed after October 1, 2020, including passports, employment authorization cards from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and border crossing cards.

most people don’t have a real id yet

The original compliance deadline under the law was May 2008. Since DHS did not issue final regulations until that January, the agency began giving states a series of extensions. Some states initially blocked the law from being implemented, but since then they have moved toward compliance. As of October 1, DHS said that the District of Columbia and all but three states are compliant and issuing Real IDs. Oklahoma and Oregon have gotten extensions, but they plan to issue Real ID cards starting in the spring. New Jersey has started offering Real IDs, and the state is being reviewed by DHS for full compliance. Among the U.S. territories covered by the law, American Samoa is under review, and the Northern Mariana Islands has an extension.

Even though almost all states are issuing Real IDs, a lot of driver’s license holders have not made the switch yet. A survey the U.S. Travel Association commissioned this year estimated that 72% of American adults, or about 182 million people, “say their driver’s license is not a Real ID or they may be confused” about whether they have one. While people will be able to present a passport or another alternative form of identification at TSA checkpoints, the survey found 39%, or 99 million Americans, said “they do not have any form of identification that will be accepted” after the deadline.

department of defense facilities

The Department of Defense is generally enforcing the requirement for a Real ID to enter military bases. A number of bases are scanning the IDs to check all visitors against criminal databases. Most bases nominally require a Real ID already but allow other forms of identification for people who do not have one. Many military bases will allow someone, such as a family member or friend, without a Real ID to enter as long as they are escorted by someone who has a military identification card. DOD issued new physical security standards in January to ensure minimum standards for military installation access that will apply to all bases. Prior to this guidance, an interim policy allowed the military services to adjust their base access policies as needed.

increasing public awareness

State licensing agencies are attempting to raise awareness of the deadline and help people switch to a Real ID. Arizona’s transportation department has a countdown clock on its website. Earlier this year, North Carolina’s DMV offered a series of Real ID “Express Days” largely dedicated to processing applications for the cards. Maryland, Montana, and the District of Columbia are offering appointments to help people get the new card more efficiently, and Virginia is deploying mobile DMV offices.

DHS and TSA are taking steps to make the American public aware of next year’s deadline. TSA put up signs in airports starting in April, and agents have been telling passengers about the requirements if they show an ID that will no longer work at security checkpoints.

In September, Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker asked the agencies for information on how they are working with state governments and licensing agencies, as well as what they would do if there are widespread travel disruptions after the deadline. He also asked industry groups to “amplify” what DHS is saying about the requirements, and he requested all senators tell their constituents about the deadline and how they can get a Real ID.