If you have flown on a commercial airline, you were subjected to a comprehensive security check and pre-flight inspection. Most passengers are becoming accustomed to being asked to take off their shoes, jackets, belts, storing a limited amount of liquids in small containers, and putting carry-on bags and their bodies through x-ray machines for safety’s sake.

Recently, identification warning signs began appearing in airports. By January of 2018, the United States government is mandating Real ID. You will need a Real ID to fly domestically, visit Federal facilities and military bases. Real ID is a set of standards and regulations for state-issued enhanced driver’s licenses (EDLs).  

[Editor’s note: Minnesota will grant Real ID licenses beginning October 2018, and a traditional license will work for domestic flights through October 1, 2020]

What is an Enhanced Driver’s License – EDL?

EDLs provide proof of  identity and U.S. citizenship. They are issued in a secure process.  The Department of Homeland Security says, “Enhanced driver’s licenses make it easier for U.S. citizens to cross the border into the United States because they include:

  • a vicinity Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip that will signal a secure system to pull up your biographic and biometric data for the Customs and Border Protection (CBD) officer as you approach the border inspection booth. A Machine Readable Zone or barcode is an alternative to a Radio Frequency Identification chip which the border officer can use if one is not available.  and
  • a Machine Readable Zone (MRZ) or barcode that the CBP officer can read electronically if RFID is not available.

If you take a moment to review Real ID requirements, you will learn what you need to do to get your state-issued identification compliant so you will not be detained or delayed when you travel.  An enhanced driver’s license is a driver’s license that doubles as proof of identity and United States citizenship. They are specifically for travel in the Western Hemisphere – including the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.

There is no information actually stored on the card, other than a code that leads the border officer to your entry on the United States Department of Homeland Security (USDHS) secure database.

What is REAL ID?

There is some confusion about what Real ID is and does. For instance, Real ID is not a national identification card. The government is not trying to build a standardized database of everyone in the country. Each state will continue to have its unique driver’s license, maintain state records of license holders, and control who qualifies for them.

Real ID is also not a new barrier to keep undocumented immigrants from getting driver’s licenses. Some states issue driver’s licenses and identification cards to illegal immigrants who cannot provide proof of residency, via a social security card for example.  Procon reports, “Beginning in 1993 with Washington state, 12 states and DC have changed their laws to allow immigrants in the country illegally to obtain driver’s licenses. Those states hope to encourage unlicensed drivers to pass the driver’s license test and obtain car insurance.”

Why Real ID is needed

The Real ID Act was passed in 2005 by Congress on the recommendation of the 9/11 Committee. The act was intended to strengthen airport security and prevent terrorist attacks similar to the hijacked airplanes that destroyed the World Trade Center twin towers on September 11, 2001. The act established minimum security standards for state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards. Federal agencies will not be allowed to accept forms of identification which fall below the Real ID standards.

Some states are at different levels of the Real ID standards implementation. The Real ID act is a federal mandate, not a state mandate, so it only applies where federal jurisdiction prevails. It has taken a significant amount of time to implement and enforce The Real ID Act because some state systems need to be upgraded to become compliant.

Some states are slow to adopt Real ID

Minnesota, Depart Smart’s home state, is one of five states without enhanced driver’s licenses. In 2009, when the Real ID law was fresh off the congressional floor, Minnesota lawmakers had concerns about whether Real ID would become a national registry. They did not want to create a de facto national ID card which could track the movements of Minnesota’s citizens.

The Minnesota House and Senate voted to ban Real ID implementation in Minnesota. The ban was lifted in 2016, but there is still contention. Minnesota is currently non-compliant with the federal REAL ID Act. What does this mean? According to the Federal Department of Homeland Security:

  • From now until January 22, 2018 –
    • The TSA says it will continue to accept Minnesota driver’s licenses as a form of identification to board domestic flights.
  • From January 23, 2018 through October 1, 2020 –
    • Licenses from all compliant states (or noncompliant states with an extension) will be accepted. Minnesota is currently not compliant and has not been granted an extension by the federal government.
    • People with licenses from noncompliant states without extensions, such as Minnesota, will need to show another form of ID, such as a passport, to board a flight.

Now Minnesota is working on implementing Real ID. How it moves forward will change what this means for everyday citizens. Both the House and the Senate are working on different bills to implement Real ID. The House bill specifically bars undocumented immigrants from getting non-Real ID compliant licenses. The Senate bill is silent on the subject.

When do I need Real ID?

 Starting on January 23, 2018 any domestic passengers whose driver’s license is not Real ID compliant, as in EDL, will have to use their passports to travel. However, if Minnesota gets an extension, or if you have a driver’s license issued by a state which is compliant or has an extension to become compliant, you can use your existing license. You will need a Real ID, like a passport, if you want to enter a federal facility, a military base or a nuclear facility.

You do not need a Real ID if you are entering some federally owned facilities, like the Smithsonian Institute. You do not need Real ID to vote, or if you are applying for federal benefits. You do not need real ID if you are applying for a driver’s license, if you are accessing health or life-preserving services, or if you are participating in law enforcement proceedings or investigations.

Do I have to get a Real ID?

You are not required to get a Real ID, just yet. Starting October 1, 2020, every air traveler will need a REAL ID compliant driver’s license, or another acceptable form of identification like a passport, for domestic air travel.

If you do not have an ID compliant with Real ID standards, all you have to do is present an additional form of acceptable ID to prove who you are. If you are trying to fly domestically, present both your driver’s license and your passport. The rule will come into effect in January, 2018, unless your state has been granted an extension.

What are your options?

If you travel domestically in 2018 and your state is non-compliant, you have a few options for additional forms of ID to present. These must be forms of ID approved by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). They include:

  • A driver’s license or other state photo identity card issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles (or equivalent)
  • A United States passport
  • A United States passport card
  • US DHS-trusted traveler cards such as Global Entry, NEXUS, SENTRI and FAST
  • A United States Military ID – these must be active duty or retired military and their dependents, and DoD civilians
  • A permanent resident card
  • A border crossing card
  • A USDHS-designated enhanced driver’s license
  • An airline or airport-issued ID (if issued under a TSA-approved security plan)
  • A federally-recognized, tribal-issued photo ID
  • An HSPD-12 PIV card
  • A foreign government-issued passport
  • A Canadian provincial driver’s license or Indian and Northern Affairs Canada card
  • A transportation worker identification credential
  • A United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Employment Authorization Card (I-766)
  • A United States Merchant Mariner Credential


Real ID Compliance Map

Map of Real ID Compliance of US States and Territories as of February, 2018.

What states have Real ID in effect?

This map from the United States Department of Homeland Security (USDHS) shows the levels of compliance across the country. All but five states have some level of compliance.  Those states are Maine, Montana, Missouri, Minnesota and Washington. States and other jurisdictions have made significant progress in enhancing the security of their licenses over the last number of years. As a result, approximately 90% of all U.S. drivers hold licenses from jurisdictions: (1) determined to meet the Act’s standards; or (2) that have received extensions. Individuals holding driver’s licenses or identification cards from these jurisdictions may continue to use them as before.

What does the future look like for noncompliant states?

If you live in a noncompliant state like Minnesota, you should keep your eye on local legislators. Right now, Minnesota lawmakers are scrambling to catch up with Real ID law. Versions of the Real ID are already available in 13 locations in Minnesota, for a payment of $15. At this point, some Minnesotans will have to renew their driver’s licenses before their expiration dates if they want to fly without a passport.

There will be a few struggles ahead for Minnesota lawmakers when it comes to deciding which version of the Real ID bill they want to choose – the House’s or the Senate’s – and depending on what they pick, the actual rollout could look very different. Minnesota is also facing some federal restrictions if they do not get moving and get in compliance.

If this is the first time you are hearing about Real ID and you are living in a noncompliant state, you might want to subscribe to regular updates from your local government and newspaper so you know what you will need in order to fly. In the meantime, you can figure out your state’s status on the USDHS website.

Traveling soon?

If all of this sounds complicated and hard to manage, here are a few quick tips to help you prepare for travel in 2018.

  1. What to do: Visit your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles and inquire about REAL ID. Most states have an option for you. You can use a passport until 2020.

2. If you want to get ahead of the issue: Procure one of the acceptable forms of identification from the list above.

3. Talk to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA): You can confirm your identification is compliant with a TSA officer.

4. You can also talk to your lawmakers: If your state is noncompliant, call the office of your local policy maker. They or their staff members can answer questions.  You can tell your representative what you want to see from Real ID law in the future.

5. Bring backup ID: Carry your passport.  Better prepared than delayed.

Before you go, make sure to Depart Smart. Make a Travel Safety Plan with the help of travel-safety experts at Depart Smart. Avoid risks and enjoy worry-free global adventures with a customized Emergency Action Plan.

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