REAL ID: Why You Need It and How to Get One

This time next year, those without a REAL ID won't be able to use their licenses to board an airplane or walk in to a federal building. Here's what you need to know to avoid trouble

What to Know

  • On Oct. 1, 2020, drivers' licenses and identification cards must comply with the federal REAL ID Act.
  • You will need a REAL ID or alternate identification to board domestic flights, visit a military base or enter other federal facilities.
  • The deadline to get a REAL ID for those uses above is Oct. 1, 2020.

October marks one year until the federal REAL ID act goes into full effect for state-issued identification. This time next year, those without a REAL ID won't be able to use their licenses to board an airplane or walk in to a federal building.

Under that act, all states must meet Department of Homeland Security standards for their licenses and ID cards to be accepted for such things as boarding domestic flights or visiting military bases or other federal facilities.

Here's what the REAL ID is all about and what you need to know to get one.

Why is the government making people get a REAL ID?

The new form of ID is a result of the REAL ID Act. The act, passed by Congress in 2005 in response to the 9/11 attacks, establishes "minimum security standards for state-issued driver's licenses and identification cards" and prevents federal agencies from accepting those forms of identification from states that don't meet the DHS's standards.

Can non-citizens apply for a REAL ID?

Yes. Pennsylvania allows non-citizens to obtain driver's licenses, and the requirements are similar to the requirement for getting a REAL ID.

When will REAL ID enforcement begin?

The final deadline for all states is Oct. 1, 2020.

What happens after Oct. 1, 2020?

After this date, you won't be able to use your regular driver's license/ID card for boarding domestic flights. To do these things, you will need a REAL ID or alternative forms of approved identification.

Do I already have a REAL ID? How do I tell?

All REAL ID-compliant driver's licenses and state-issued IDs have a white star inside a gold circle on the front of the ID. Check it out in the photo below. If you have one, you're good to go. If not, you'll want to look into getting a REAL ID.

How can I get a REAL ID?

If you live in Pennsylvania, you have three options:

1. Get pre-verified online: If you got your first Pennsylvania driver's license, photo ID or learning permit after Sept. 1, 2003, you will have received a postcard from PennDOT telling you that you're eligible for online pre-verification. Once you've gone through the online pre-verification process, PennDOT will let you know if you're verified and you can then officially order your REAL ID online and wait for it to come in the mail. (Again, that link is here.)

2. Take required documents to any PennDOT driver's license center: Once your documents are verified at the license center, you should receive your REAL ID in the mail within 15 business days.

3. Take required documents to a REAL ID Center: This works the same as taking your documents to a driver's license center, but it has the added advantage of letting you walk away with a REAL ID the day-of, instead of having to wait the 15 business days. You can find your nearest REAL ID Center here.

For New Jersey, follow these steps:

1. Sign up to be notified: The NJ MVC asks that you fill out an online form to be notified to make an appoitment. You can do that here.

2. Collect the approved documents: You need two documents verifying your address, one verifying your social security number and six points of identification. That last one is a grading system based on the types of ID you have available. It is a bit complicated, but NJ made a handy online selector to help you along. See that here.

Delaware began issuing REAL ID-compliant licenses in 2010, so most ID holders should meet the standards. But if you're unsure, check out this page.

What documents do I need to show to get a REAL ID?

Whether doing it online or in person, your quest for a REAL ID starts with having the required documents in order. The requirements differ slightly by state, but in general, here's what you'll need:

1. Proof of Identity: You'll need one of either your U.S. birth certificate with a raised seal or a certified copy of the certificate, a U.S. passport or passport card, a certificate of U.S. citizenship or a certificate of naturalization. If you're a non-citizen, you'll need either a green card, a passport with an I-551 stamp, an immigrant Visa or an I-327 re-entry permit.

2. Proof of Social Security Number: This would be your original Social Security card. If you've lost your Social Security card, you can get a free replacement from the Social Security Administration.

3. Proof of residency: To prove residency, you'll need to provide two of the following options: your current license or ID, a vehicle registration card, a car insurance card, a utility bill, post-marked mail through USPS, UPS, FedEx or others, a lease agreement or mortgage documents, or your W-2 form.

4. Proof of name, date of birth, or gender change: This only applies if you've changed your name, date of birth or gender and it differs from your birth certificate or legal status document. If that's the case, valid name change documents would be a marriage certificate, divorce decree, court order approving a name or birth date change, or an original or certified copy of an amended birth certificate showing a name change. 

Is a REAL ID mandatory?

Technically, no. You don't need a REAL ID to vote, apply or receive federal benefits or even drive. Also, though a REAL ID might make it easier and more convenient for you to board domestic flights or visit federal facilities, you can also use alternative forms of identification instead.

What are the alternative forms of identification I can use to fly domestically and enter military bases or federal facilities?

  • U.S. passport
  • U.S. passport card
  • DHS trusted traveler cards (Global Entry, NEXUS, SENTRI, FAST)
  • U.S. Department of Defense ID, including IDs issued to dependents
  • Permanent resident card
  • Border crossing card
  • DHS-designated enhanced driver's license
  • Federally recognized, tribal-issued photo ID
  • HSPD-12 PIV card
  • Foreign government-issued passport
  • Canadian provincial driver's license or Indian and Northern Affairs Canada card
  • Transportation worker identification credential
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Employment Authorization Card (I-766)
  • U.S. Merchant Mariner Credential

So if it's not mandatory, why should I get a REAL ID?

For one, a REAL ID could be the cheaper option. "It's definitely cheaper to get a REAL ID than a passport," PennDOT Community Coordinator Alexis Campbell said. She's right, too. The cost to renew your passport can cost upwards of $100, whereas a REAL ID will run you $30 plus an applicable renewal fee.

A REAL ID can also be more convenient. For example, if you're someone who travels domestically, it might just be easier to use your license to get through TSA instead of having to remember to bring along your passport, meaning a REAL ID might make sense for you.

"It's really up to the user to consider their own travel habits are and what they want," Campbell said.

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