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Everything Travelers Need to Know About the REAL ID Act

SmarterTravel

Are your days of flying domestically using only your driver’s license numbered? They could be, if you don’t have a new type of license. As the deadline for the REAL ID Act looms, it’s vital for you to know if your current driver’s licenses doesn’t meet the new criteria. If you are without a REAL ID come October 1, 2021, (previously October 2020, until the global pandemic pushed off the deadline) you might not be able to fly in the U.S. with just your state-issued ID.

Here’s a quick and easy primer with everything you need to know about the REAL ID Act, about when to use a REAL ID vs. a passport, and about the Department of Homeland Security’s hard deadline on the changes.

What Is the REAL ID Act?

In 2005, the REAL ID Act established nationwide requirements for state IDs as a post-9/11 security measure. States had well over a decade to make the changes: The deadline is now October 2021. Some states struggled to make the switch to issuing the new, compliant licenses; having trouble finding the budget for the new licenses, or lacking other logistical means to enact the changes until as late as mid-2020. This made for a short deadline that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) ultimately pushed to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused many governmental agencies to close indefinitely. If you don’t have a REAL ID come October 2021, you’ll need a passport or alternate form of identification for domestic air travel.

REAL ID Changes Timeline: When to Worry About Invalid IDs for Flying

The original deadline to implement the new regulations passed in 2016, but all non-compliant states were granted extension periods and the REAL ID deadline was pushed back multiple times to accommodate them. The Department of Homeland Security provides an up-to-date map on its website showing which states are compliant.

October 1, 2021: According to the DHS website, by this date “every air traveler will need a REAL ID-compliant license, or another acceptable form of identification, for domestic air travel” as well as to enter federal government buildings. If by this date your state license is not a REAL ID compatible one, you will need to bring another form of ID to the airport, like a passport.

How Do I Get a REAL ID?

The process for getting your REAL ID is a little more difficult than the last time you renewed your license: You’ll probably have to visit a DMV and provide paperwork, like proof of residency and proof of lawful presence in the United States. You can, however, submit this paperwork (which you’ll still need to bring with you) online ahead of time for approval: Check your state’s DMV requirements online for more information.

If you’re a non-citizen or you think getting your ID might be more complicated for any other reason, check the Department of Homeland Security’s DHS REAL ID FAQ page for more information on your particular case.

REAL ID vs. Passports

If your state is unable to provide REAL IDs or if you don’t acquire one yourself before October 1, 2021, you’ll need to bring a passport or another TSA-acceptable document with you to the airport in order to pass through security. The DHS reminded travelers often of the looming deadline, in part because if everyone rushes to get a REAL ID at once, there could be long wait times in many states.

If you don’t have a passport, there’s also some urgency to get one before late 2021: the State Department has warned of longer-than-usual passport processing times in recent years. This first happened in 2017 after a large number of passports expired (10 years after the U.S. first required passports for Canada and Mexico). The REAL ID fervor could cause another spike in passport applications close to October 2021, so it’s best to renew early.

Also, keep in mind that some destinations require six-month passport validity to enter the country—so you should be thinking about renewing your passport early regardless of your ID type.

Does a REAL ID Replace a Passport?

The short answer: no. You’ll need a REAL ID at minimum for domestic travel come October 2021, and your passport can work in place of a REAL ID for domestic travel—but a valid passport will still be required for international travel. So whether you have a REAL ID or not, a passport will always get you through airport security. And whether you have a REAL ID or not, a passport will always be required for international travel.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2016 and has been updated to reflect the most current information. Shannon McMahon and Jamie Ditaranto contributed reporting.

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