Everything to Know About the REAL ID — Including How to Get One and When to Use It

Here's when you'll actually need to get a REAL ID.

<p>Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images</p>

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

You've probably seen the signage for REAL IDs all over the airport, but do you know what it actually is? As recommended by the 9/11 Commission, Congress passed the REAL ID Act to set security standards for forms of identification like driver's licenses back in 2005. The act ultimately requires anyone accessing certain federal facilities, boarding commercial aircraft, or entering nuclear power plants to use an ID that meets these standards. But as of today, the REAL ID Act hasn't been enforced. "The deadlines have been pushed out several times, with the current date of May 7, 2025," says Dr. Sheldon Jacobson, a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with a research background in aviation security. Here's what you need to know about REAL IDs, especially as it relates to air travel.

What is a REAL ID and do I need one?

A REAL ID is a government-issued ID that meets federal security standards. Now, most "regular" state-issued driver's licenses do not meet these standards. That's why every state (plus Washington, D.C., and U.S. territories) has developed a new driver's license that's REAL ID–compliant — it'll have a star on the upper portion of the card. When the REAL ID Act becomes enforced, you will need to use a REAL ID–compliant form of identification at airport security. If you don't have one, you won't be permitted to enter the airport.

But do you absolutely need a REAL ID–compliant driver's license to get through airport security? The answer is no. There are other compliant forms of ID for those who don't have a driver's license. "You can use a passport, or other forms of ID that have a higher level of validation. A Global Entry card would also work," says Jacobson. Check out some of the options below, and find the full list of acceptable IDs on Transportation Security Administration (TSA) website.

  • U.S. passport

  • U.S. passport card

  • DHS trusted traveler cards (Global Entry, Nexus, Sentri, Fast)

  • Permanent resident card

  • An acceptable photo ID issued by a federally recognized, Tribal Nation/Indian Tribe

  • HSPD-12 PIV card

  • Foreign government-issued passport

It's also important to note a REAL ID will only be required of travelers 18 years and older. Children do not need an ID to fly, per the TSA.

<p>Jeffrey Greenberg/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images</p>

Jeffrey Greenberg/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

When do I need to get a REAL ID?

At the time of publication, the enforcement date of the Real ID Act is May 7, 2025. But Jacobson believes the deadline might be further delayed. "The airlines cannot support any measure that may prohibit a ticketed passenger from flying. Congress will find some reason to delay its implementation once again," he says.

It's a reasonable suspicion — the act was originally supposed to go into effect in 2008. But it took states and territories years to get on board, with some states protesting the cost and others concerned about privacy issues. Only in December 2022 did all jurisdictions offer REAL IDs.

In the event the REAL ID Act does go into effect on May 7, 2025, it's best to get your enhanced driver's license sooner rather than later to avoid any potential backlogs as the date nears.

How do I get a REAL ID?

The process of acquiring a REAL ID–compliant driver's license varies per state — you should consult the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to learn more. It also depends on whether you're applying for a driver's license for the first time or upgrading an existing valid driver's license to a REAL ID. Generally speaking, you'll need to visit a DMV office, bring with you certain documents for identification, and possibly pay a processing fee.

Or, if you don't want to upgrade your driver's license, you can always travel with another REAL ID–compliant form of identification, like your passport or Global Entry card.

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