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Why the TSA May Stop Accepting Your Driver’s License

This past April, my fiance Chris noticed a typo on his Washington state driver’s license. His name read “Christoper.” I replied with an outrageous laugh and nonsensical taunts: Christopurr the cat. Christo-per-usual. I was having a ball.

“I need the name on my license to match the name on my car title exactly to be able to ship my car overseas,” Chris explained, not even getting into the problems that may arise when applying for an overseas driver’s license. “And Washington requires me to go in-person to get this fixed—even though it was their error.”

My face dropped. Chris is in the military, currently stationed in southern Arizona for a class with his next assignment in Germany starting this fall. Going back to Washington would be next to impossible with his schedule, not to mention a wedding ceremony this summer.

“So, just get an Arizona license!” I told him. Problem solved.

“Arizona licenses won’t be valid with TSA next year,” he casually replied.

This is ridiculous, I thought. But as I began digging deeper to find out what the heck was happening, I realized it’s true. And still ridiculous. How can an entire state risk keeping its citizens grounded? It turns out, several are doing it. Travelers with driver’s licenses from Arizona, Maine, Louisiana, and New Hampshire (as well as American Samoa) may soon find themselves in a bind.

The REAL ID Act of 2005

It’s all because of the REAL ID Act of 2005, a set of federal standards passed after 9/11 aimed at making licenses harder to counterfeit. Several states, including Arizona, rejected the mandates. State law currently prohibits Arizona from complying with these federal requirements.

Accepting the REAL ID Act would mean accepting outside intervention in state affairs, say opponents, who feel the bill is too sweeping and intrusive. Some worry that this is a way for the federal government to create a national identity card. Others think it will act like a tracking device, recording people’s whereabouts and providing the government with a way to spy on them.

Related: What Not to Wear in the Airport Security Line

To comply with the act, states would need to include typical information on licenses (name, date of birth, gender, license number, a photograph, address, and signature) in addition to “machine-readable technology, with defined minimum data elements,” and security features to prevent duplication or counterfeiting. To issue these licenses, citizens would have to show proof of identity, including date of birth, proof of social security account number, and documentation of address.

The federal government recommends states offer an alternative labeled “Not for Federal Identification,” so residents that prefer to opt out of the federally compliant version can do so, whether for religious reasons or because they don’t want to verify proof of citizenship. The new system would also require states to retain paper or digital copies of source documents, facial image capture, and for states to provide electronic access to all other states’ database, including data printed on licenses and drivers’ histories.

Because of this, some state lawmakers and citizens believe this database will be accessible to federal officials, though the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) maintains that “there is no Federal database of driver information. Each jurisdiction will issue its own unique license and maintain its own records.”

Timeline for Enforcement

The DHS says REAL ID enforcement for boarding aircraft will happen “no sooner than 2016,” but enforcement in other areas has been rolling out since early 2014. Those with non-conforming licenses are already barred from entering certain federal buildings unless they have alternate identification, such as a passport or Permanent Residency Card.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the airline enforcement is pushed back, given the noncommittal time frame, plus the fact that DHS promises the public will have “ample advanced notice before identification requirements for boarding aircraft change. That notice will include information on the process for individuals with a noncompliant driver’s license or identification card to be able to travel by aircraft.”

But imagine if the timeline isn’t pushed back. It’s hard to picture travelers, entire vacations planned, getting turned away before even reaching the X-ray machine. Depending on how seriously it’s enforced, it may just result in epic delays for passengers without sufficient ID. Even if residents of noncompliant states are informed, it’ll take weeks for them to get a passport (not to mention forking over the money for said passport, especially if they need it rushed).

Related: 10 Free Things You Can Get at Airports

If noncompliant states pass laws to meet ID requirements, it’ll take some time for each state’s department of motor vehicles (or equivalent department) to get everything up and running. In the meantime, why aren’t these states informing their citizens?

Several of my fiance’s colleagues, also in the military, recently switched their licenses to Arizona. None of them were informed that they may have some issues as soon as six months from now.

What’s Next?

The law the Arizona state government is trying to pass would make the new license voluntary, giving citizens the option to purchase the federally compliant version. That it’s only now coming to a head (an entire decade later) is, although absurd, a moot point. Citizens still skeptical wouldn’t need to do anything—besides get a passport if they want to avoid driving hours and hours to get to their next vacation destination.

Citizens with noncompliant licenses will still be able to drive, as well as vote, receive federal benefits, appear in court, and access health services. Even residents who hold unexpired, noncompliant IDs from states that have complied or filed for an extension will be able to use their ID through October 2020.

Right now, only a handful of state licenses meet requirements, with most others having filed for extensions with justification for their noncompliance. Five states—Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington—offer Enhanced Driver’s Licenses (EDL). These licenses are acceptable forms of identification for the TSA—and for crossing the Canadian and Mexican borders. Residents in New York and Minnesota with a regular, non-EDL license don’t have an acceptable ID.

So for now, because we can’t risk waiting like the government can, it seems we have an excuse to plan a Washington vacation—even if it involves sitting in the waiting room at the Department of Licensing.

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