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You may have noticed Transportation Security Administration signs posted at airport security checkpoints warning travelers about upcoming ID requirement changes. So what exactly are these changes, and what do you need to do to be ready?
We’ll break down exactly how REAL ID works — including what the REAL ID Act means for you and how you travel.
What Is the REAL ID Act?
Formulated in the wake of September 11 and passed by Congress in 2005, the REAL ID Act was passed to “set standards for the issuance of sources of identification, such as driver’s licenses.”
The act established minimum security standards for state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards and it prohibits federal agencies from accepting licenses and identification cards for official purposes from states that do not meet these standards.
It was aimed at thwarting airline terrorism by increasing requirements to obtain documents that grant access to domestic planes.
State agencies that issue licenses and identification cards, like the Department of Motor Vehicles, require more paperwork regarding proof of residency and Social Security numbers to obtain standard licenses under the new act.
The cards also use new technology, making them much more difficult to forge.
Due to various roadblocks and the COVID-19 pandemic, it will have taken the federal government nearly 20 years to implement the act fully — a gradual process that has been met by some confusion as each state has a different status. The original date of compliance was October 1, 2020. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the deadline was first delayed to October 1, 2021, then to May 3, 2023, and now to May 7, 2025. All states must comply by May 7, 2025.
We know a lot of travelers are concerned that they will lose the ability to fly, drive, or vote as a result of the REAL ID Act, but this isn’t the case. You can continue to use your regular license or identification to drive and vote without obtaining a REAL ID.
The change will only impact domestic travel in the U.S. and you will either need to provide an alternate form of TSA-approved ID or obtain a REAL ID.
Bottom Line: To fly internationally, you will always need your passport.
What Does a REAL ID Look Like?
In most states, there is a gold or black star on the front of the REAL ID license that signifies compliance. If you see one of these stars, then you’re good to go.
There are 5 states — Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington — that issue enhanced driver’s licenses (EDLs). These are a form of REAL ID. These EDLs allow land and sea border crossings to Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and Vermont offer the EDL as an option. Washington only issues EDLs.
Hot Tip: Enhanced IDs aren’t a substitute for passports for air travel, only land or sea travel.
An easy way to know your card is not compliant is if it says “Not for Federal Identification,” “Federal Limits Apply,” or “Not for Real ID Act Purposes.”
What Does REAL ID Mean for Me?
Airports are considered federal facilities and this act affects your ability to enter them and board your flight.
Starting May 7, 2025, the REAL ID Act takes full effect. From this date, every state and territory resident will need to present a REAL ID-compliant license or ID or another acceptable form of identification such as a passport or passport card to access federal facilities — including boarding commercial aircraft.
Most states and territories have already begun issuing new licenses. You will have until May 7, 2025, to obtain a REAL ID-compliant license. Just check your license to be sure.
If your ID is REAL ID-compliant, there will be a star in the top right corner. Many drivers may not realize they already have a compliant ID since some states have issued them for many years.
Bottom Line: If you are not in compliance with the REAL ID Act, you will need to show an alternative form of acceptable identification for domestic air travel to board your flight starting on May 7, 2025.
What the REAL ID Act Is Not
A REAL ID is NOT a substitute for a passport for international travel. This means you can’t use a REAL ID to enter Canada or Mexico by land or any international travel destination. The only exception to this is if you have an enhanced driver’s license — more on this below!
There are several other requirements that REAL ID doesn’t affect.
REAL ID requirements don’t apply to:
Voting or registering to vote
Applying for or receiving federal benefits
Being licensed by a state to drive or rent a car
Entering federal facilities that do not require identification (including a defendant’s access to court proceedings, national parks, and Social Security offices)
Accessing health- or life-preserving services (including hospitals and health clinics)
Participating in law enforcement proceedings or investigation
The ability to purchase alcohol, cash checks, or gamble
You can also continue to use your standard driver’s license or ID card for other U.S. travel including driving in and across state lines or riding a train.
Who Needs a REAL ID?
In most instances, obtaining a REAL ID isn’t required, but there are many benefits to obtaining a REAL ID. Here is a breakdown of some common reasons to consider getting a REAL ID and a few reasons why you might not need one.
Common Reasons To Obtain a REAL ID
You want to fly with only your state-issued ID
You don’t have a passport or another TSA-approved ID (listed below)
You need to visit a secure federal facility, such as a military base, and don’t have a military ID
Reasons You May Not Need a REAL ID
You are under 18 years old
You only need your ID for purposes of identification (ie. to vote, serve on a jury, or drive)
You don’t mind bringing another TSA-approved ID (like a passport) along when you fly starting on May 7, 2025
Who Can Get a REAL ID?
To qualify for a REAL ID-compliant ID or license, you must fall under one of the following categories:
U.S. citizen or national
U.S. lawful permanent resident or lawful temporary resident (including green card holders)
Have conditional permanent resident status in the U.S. (including individuals with valid work permits, like H1B visas)
Have an approved asylum application or entered under refugee status
Have a valid, unexpired nonimmigrant visa
Have a pending application for asylum
Have a pending or approved temporary protected status
Have an approved deferred action status (including DACA)
Have a pending application for adjustment of status to that of lawful permanent or conditional resident
Specifically, for undocumented immigrants, the DHS website notes that driver’s licenses and identification cards can still be issued by the state, but not REAL IDs: “Some states currently issue noncompliant cards to undocumented individuals. Noncompliant cards must clearly state on their face that they are not acceptable for REAL ID purposes and must use a unique design or color to differentiate them from compliant cards.”
Since licenses are issued at the state level, each process is slightly different. But the good news is that all states are in compliance with the REAL ID Act. This just means that each state and territory is now able to provide REAL IDs.
In a move aimed to help more people receive their REAL IDs before the May 7, 2025, deadline, the DHS passed the REAL ID Modernization Act that allows you to submit your identification documents electronically. This includes information such as a birth certificate and passport.
Applicants will still need to bring the required documents in person so they can be compared to the electronic submissions. This means that to get a REAL ID-compliant license, you must still physically go to a DMV office.
Bottom Line: States will not send you a REAL ID-compliant license automatically if you renew your license online. While most states are issuing compliant IDs, individuals may still choose not to upgrade their licenses.
What if My State Is REAL ID-Compliant?
You will be able to use your state-issued ID at airports through May 7, 2025. After May 7, 2025, you will need a REAL ID (or another TSA-approved ID) to fly — both domestically and internationally.
Which States Require REAL ID To Fly?
All states issue REAL ID-compliant IDs, but none require a REAL ID. You can still fly as long as you have a TSA-approved form of ID. When comparing a REAL ID to a state ID, they can be the same form of identification.
Steps To Take To Get a Compliant REAL ID
If you’ve decided you’d like to get a REAL ID, you’ll definitely want to know where to go to get a REAL ID, what documents to bring, and how much the REAL ID costs.
Step 1: Make an appointment to visit a REAL ID at a DMV field office near you. Some offices are offering special hours or days for those trying to get a REAL ID before May 7, 2025. You can also get a REAL ID without an appointment, but this isn’t recommended as wait times at your local office can be incredibly long.
Here are the links to all of the local offices to help you get started with this process.
Step 2: On the day of your appointment, ensure you bring all the necessary documents (even if you have submitted documents online beforehand).
What Real ID Documents Do I Need?
Proof of identity, such as a certified copy of a U.S. birth certificate, U.S. passport, employment authorization document, permanent resident card, or foreign passport with an approved form I-94
Proof of your Social Security number, such as an SSN card, W-2, or paystub with full SSN
At least 2 proof of residency documents, such as a rental or lease agreement, mortgage bill, utility bill or employment, medical, or school document
If applicable, an original or certified copy of a name change document, such as a marriage certificate or divorce decree, may be required
If you have any issues or concerns with obtaining any of the documents or seeing if an item will be accepted, we suggest checking directly with your local DMV.
Step 3: Pay the fee for the license. This will vary by state but is generally less than $60. Check our graphic under “How Much Does a REAL ID Cost?” below for specific costs.
Common Problems With Obtaining a REAL ID
There are a lot of questions about what is and isn’t an appropriate document to bring along with you to obtain a REAL ID. Issues like not having a mailing address, having a name change, or having a temporary or expired license are common problems. Also, getting a REAL ID without key documents such as a birth certificate, Social Security card, or passport can be a challenge.
If you’re unsure, we always recommend reaching out to your state’s license-issuing office directly before you head to your appointment!
Some states, like California, offer a list of documents that are accepted for each category. This is a good place to start when gathering your documents. Look for notes about when copies or originals are necessary and read recommendations for alternatives if you don’t have the recommended residency documents or if you use a P.O. Box.
Can I Transfer My REAL ID Between States?
No, you can’t transfer your REAL ID between states. Unfortunately, federal requirements don’t allow for the transfer of a REAL ID license between states. Each state is required to view and image all documentation upon original issuance in that state.
This means that when you move, you will need to go in person to present the same documentation such as a U.S. birth certificate or passport, Social Security card, and 2 proofs of residence address, as well as meet all of your new state’s issuance requirements.
On a positive note, REAL ID licenses from other states can typically be used like any other out-of-state driver’s license to waive behind-the-wheel driving tests.
Is REAL ID Mandatory to Fly?
As of May 2022, an estimated 137 million Americans held REAL ID-compliant driver’s licenses, U.S. passports, passport cards, military IDs, and Global Entry cards, all of which qualify as REAL ID-compliant identification. But, according to the most recent reports from the government, that is only 49% of Americans!
This means that you don’t have to upgrade your license to board your flight, but you will have to use an alternative (TSA-approved) form of ID. TSA currently accepts several other forms of identity documents:
As you can see, the most common alternatives to a REAL ID is a U.S. passport or a U.S. passport card.
Other less common items are DHS Trusted Traveler cards (Global Entry, NEXUS, SENTRI, FAST), permanent resident cards, Department of Defense IDs, enhanced driver’s licenses, and federally recognized tribal-issued photo IDs.
For more information on acceptable forms of identification for boarding aircraft, please see TSA’s website. However, it should be noted that if on or after May 7, 2025, you cannot provide an acceptable form of identification, you will not be permitted through the security checkpoint to board your flight.
How Much Does a REAL ID Cost?
REAL ID prices vary significantly throughout the country. Prices are set by the state, along with the process for getting a REAL ID. Below is a map with information on the cost and process in each state.
Potential State Revenue
We were interested in estimating just how much revenue states might be bringing in due to the new REAL IDs. For this, we used the cost from the above numbers and multiplied them by the estimated number of drivers in each state, according to information from the Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration.
This estimation is based on what we would consider the max possible revenue (if every driver in each state got a new license for the REAL ID Act). Because the new IDs are not mandatory, we understand that not everyone may get one. However, this is an approximation of revenue.
What About Minors Under 18?
TSA does not require children under 18 to provide identification when traveling with a companion within the U.S. The companion will need acceptable identification, though.
Airlines may demand proof of the child’s age, such as a birth certificate or passport, but these requirements aren’t regulated by TSA. Contact the airline for more information.
Now is the time to make sure you know the requirements to be REAL ID-compliant.
In some states, it may take a few weeks or longer to get an appointment at your local DMV. By taking steps towards compliance now, you can avoid the last-minute rush and be ready to go long before May 7, 2025.
Featured Image Credit: Upgraded Points
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the REAL ID card?
A REAL ID is a form of identification that meets increased security standards for state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards. Travelers will be required to provide either a REAL ID or another TSA-approved form of identification to fly after May 7, 2025.
Which states have REAL ID?
Currently, all states are either in compliance with the REAL ID Act or have an extension in place. This means that they are currently able to issue REAL IDs.
While all states are issuing REAL IDs, you can still get a non-REAL ID license as well. Be sure you know what you are getting when you show up!
Do you need a REAL ID to fly?
A REAL ID is a valid form of identification you can use to fly. However, there are many other TSA-approved forms of identification that are also acceptable. You will still need your U.S. passport to travel internationally.
Do I need a REAL ID to fly domestic?
No, a REAL ID isn’t required to fly within the United States. However, starting on May 7, 2025, you will need a REAL ID or another TSA-approved form of identification to fly within the U.S.
Be sure to check out our graphic above for other documents that will be accepted at airport security if you don’t have a REAL ID.
Will REAL ID work as a passport?
If you are traveling internationally, you still need your U.S. passport, as a REAL ID does not replace your passport. If you are traveling domestically, you will only need 1 valid form of identification — either your REAL ID or your passport, not both.
What documents are needed for a REAL ID?
States require you to go to your local DMV and present 1) proof of identity, 2) proof of your Social Security number, 3) 2 proof of residency documents, and 4) if applicable, a proof of name change document.
See our checklist above for examples of each of these items as well as more information on how to obtain a REAL ID.
Do my kids need a REAL ID?
TSA does not require children under 18 to provide identification when traveling with a companion within the U.S. So as long as you have your documents in order, kids will not need a REAL ID.
What is the purpose of REAL ID?
According to the DHS, the purpose of the REAL ID Act “is to make our identity documents more consistent and secure.” It provides a set of standards for the issuance of driver’s licenses and other identity documents.
Can I fly with my regular ID?
You can fly with your regular ID until May 7, 2025. Following that date, you will either need a REAL ID or another TSA-approved form of ID.
How long do REAL IDs last?
This varies by state. However, REAL IDs have the same validity as other state-issued driver’s licenses. This is typically anywhere from 3 to 8 years depending on your state and age. Here is a comprehensive list by state and age.
Is the REAL ID like a driver's license?
A REAL ID can be the same document as your driver’s license. But not all driver’s licenses are REAL IDs.
We know this can be complicated, but a REAL ID driver’s license has additional technology, making it harder to forge. In addition, you must provide additional verification documents (such as multiple forms of ID and residence proof) to get a REAL ID.
Can a REAL ID be used as a passport?
A REAL ID cannot be used for international travel. You must still have your passport to travel internationally.
What is REAL ID vs. enhanced ID?
An enhanced ID is a type of REAL ID for U.S. citizens who live in Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington. Canadian citizens residing in British Columbia and Manitoba are eligible for EDLs.
In addition to serving as a driver’s license, enhanced IDs are a convenient way to get into Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean through a land or sea port of entry (not by air).
What is a REAL ID vs. a passport card?
A passport card can be used for entering the U.S. at land border crossings and sea ports of entry from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. You can also use it to fly domestically as an alternative to a REAL ID, but not for any international flights.
You still need a driver’s license to drive a motor vehicle.
What does "not for Real ID Act purposes" mean?
“Not for Real ID Act purposes” means that the ID can’t be used for identification for a domestic flight (from May 7, 2025) or to enter a federal facility such as a military base.
After having “non-rev” privileges with Southwest Airlines, Christy dove into the world of points and miles so she could continue traveling for free. Her other passion is personal finance, and is a certified CPA.