REAL ID: new deadline and what you need to know

We’ve all been hearing about REAL ID for the past couple of years. It’s an ID card or driver license that is also a federally recognized form of identification. That extra security means that the application and verification process is a lot more involved than just renewing a regular license, and REAL ID appointments were often booked out for months. The initial deadline was October 1, 2020.

Then the pandemic hit, and made it hard if not impossible to go to the DMV, and REAL ID appointments were put on hold in most areas. As a result, the deadline by which REAL ID will be required for domestic travel was pushed back, to October 1, 2021. And in April 2021 it was pushed back yet again—the new deadline is May 3, 2023. Which is so far in advance that it almost seems like another lifetime, but everyone who hasn’t yet gotten their REAL ID is still encouraged to do it as soon as possible. Here’s the latest on what you need to know about REAL ID.

REAL ID line outside DMV

Which states have REAL ID?

Because REAL ID has such stringent requirements for verifying identity, not all states were compliant with the process at first. As of now, all states are compliant, so you can get a REAL ID in all 50 states.

Does everyone need to have a REAL ID?

All U.S. residents will be required to have a REAL ID by the deadline (unless they have a valid passport or other accepted form of federally recognized ID) in order to fly domestically.

The REAL ID requirement only applies to adults, though; everyone under 18 years of age is exempt.

What’s the process to get a REAL ID?

Getting a REAL ID is basically like applying for a regular license, with some extra levels of identity verification.

REAL ID is a federal standard, so it sounds like there would be consistent requirements across all states, but… no, that would be too easy! Instead, many states require additional forms of identity verification, beyond just the federally required documents. So you’ll need to make sure you have what’s needed for your state when you apply. The federal standard (according to the Department of Homeland Security), which is the minimum for states to comply and be able to issue REAL IDs, is documentation showing:

  • Your full legal name
  • Date of birth
  • Social security number
  • Two different forms of proof of your residential address
  • Lawful status

If that seems vague, that’s because it is. The DHS isn’t specifying here exactly which forms of proof of all of the above will be acceptable. Your state will dictate that, so you’ll need to check your state’s specific guidelines for these documents.

Is there a way to make the process faster/more efficient?

Most states will allow you to submit scans online of the needed documentation online ahead of time, so that they can be verified before you go into the DMV to apply for your REAL ID.

If you go to your state’s DMV website, you can likely upload scans/photos of your passport, utility bills, social security card, and other documents for advance verification. You’ll still need to take the originals with you to the DMV, but at least you’ll know they’re all valid so you don’t get turned away and have to go back to the DMV again. Most states will also allow you to book a REAL ID appointment in advance, or to add your name to a virtual waitlist 

Do I need a REAL ID if I have a passport?

You don’t—a passport will still be acceptable for all domestic (as well as international) travel. Getting a REAL ID is probably more convenient, though, so that you don’t have to carry a passport in addition to your driver license.

Will my REAL ID be sufficient for crossing the Canadian or Mexican border?

No—as convenient as that would have been, the REAL ID won’t work for that. If you’re coming back into the U.S. from other countries on the continent, you will still need to have a valid U.S. passport.

What about an Enhanced ID or driver license? Is that the same as a REAL ID?

Confusingly, no. Here’s the difference: while the REAL ID will be necessary to fly domestically, it won’t allow you to get back into the U.S. from Mexico, Canada, or the Caribbean. The Enhanced ID will also allow you to fly domestically (now and after the May 3, 2023 REAL ID deadline), but will not be sufficient to allow you to get back into the U.S. from Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean by air. You’ll still need a passport for that.

But if you’re traveling by car or boat, it will work in place of a passport. And this is despite the fact that the documents you need to get an Enhanced ID are the same ones required to get a REAL ID in most states. (Yes, we’re shaking our heads over here, too.)

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