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If you want to travel the country without a passport in your pocket, check your wallet. You may need to swap your tattered old driver’s license for a new one, enhanced with a little star that allows you to board a plane.
States are rolling out Real ID, a driver’s license that can be used for federal identification. By Oct. 1, 2020, in most cases you’ll need a Real ID driver’s license — the kind with a star — to board domestic airline flights without a passport. An enhanced driver’s license, available in five states, will also work but goes even further and requires more documentation.
Getting a Real ID or an enhanced driver’s license adds a few requirements beyond a standard driver’s license renewal. To get your new driver’s license — whether a Real ID, enhanced license or the old-fashioned kind — here’s what to do.
How to get a Real ID driver’s license
To upgrade your standard license to a Real ID driver’s license, you must show up in person at your state’s licensing office with an assortment of documents.
Your paperwork will need to:
Prove you’re legally living in the U.S., such as with a passport or naturalization certificate.
Show your full legal name, date of birth and Social Security number.
Prove your home address with two different documents. Options may include mortgage bills or current auto insurance ID cards.
States vary in the documents they will accept, and some may have additional requirements, so check before you go. In some states, you may need an appointment to get your Real ID.
Most states are already issuing Real ID driver’s licenses, and the rest are on track to offer them before October 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
In many states, a Real ID costs the same as a standard driver’s license. Some states charge a one-time Real ID fee of $10 to $30. If you upgrade to a Real ID when your current driver’s license isn’t due for renewal, you’ll typically pay the normal fee for a replacement license.
With a Real ID, you won’t need a passport to board flights that stay within the U.S., but you’ll still need one for international travel. You can also use a Real ID as identification for entering federal facilities, such as a military base, national laboratory or federal courthouse.
You’ll know you have a Real ID driver’s license if there’s a black or gold star at the top, or a star cutout on a black or gold background.
How to get an enhanced driver’s license
Like a Real ID, an enhanced driver’s license lets you fly within the U.S. without a passport. Then it goes a step further: With an enhanced license, you can cross the border into the U.S. from Canada, Mexico or the Caribbean, by land or sea, without carrying a passport. You’ll still need a passport for an international flight, though.
Enhanced driver’s licenses are available in five states. Four of them — Michigan, Minnesota, New York and Vermont — issue both Real ID and enhanced driver’s licenses in addition to standard licenses or driver privilege cards. Washington state has only the enhanced version, along with its standard driver’s license.
To upgrade to an enhanced driver’s license, you’ll need documents similar to those required for a Real ID. You’ll also need proof of U.S. citizenship, such as a birth certificate. Check with your local licensing office to see which documents your state accepts.
An enhanced driver’s license typically costs $15 to $30 more than a standard license. Instead of a star like the Real ID, the enhanced driver’s license is marked with an American flag.
How to get a standard driver’s license
If you’re more interested in driving than flying, you may opt not to upgrade to a Real ID or enhanced driver’s license. Standard driver’s licenses are still available in most states, and they’re fine for driving, registering to vote, and most other uses.
If you already have a valid standard driver’s license in your state, getting a new one is likely to be much simpler than obtaining a Real ID or enhanced license. You may be able to handle everything online or by mail, with no documentation beyond your current driver’s license.
If you don’t already have a valid license in your state, you’ll probably need to prove your residence in the state and have another form of identification handy. If your license was suspended, you may also need to show proof that you have auto insurance in at least the state-mandated minimums. Vision and written tests are required in some states when you get a new driver’s license. Check the requirements in your state for details.
A standard driver’s license typically will be marked to show it can’t be used for federal identification, but you can use other documents when you need to fly. Among the options are a passport, military ID, or trusted traveler card such as Global Entry.
And your standard driver’s license will get you through airport security for domestic flights until Oct. 1, 2020.
When to get a new driver’s license
Millions of drivers are expected to upgrade to Real ID licenses. If you want one for boarding flights starting in October 2020, it’s a good idea to apply as soon as you can. Lines may be long if you wait until the last minute.
If you don’t want a Real ID or enhanced driver’s license, you can keep using your current license for now.
However, here are some other situations when you may need a new driver’s license:
You’ve never had a driver’s license. To get your first license, you’re typically required to pass written, vision and driving tests. Then you’ll need to provide documents proving your identity. Requirements vary by state, so check with the office that issues licenses where you live.
You recently moved to a new state. You’ll need a new driver’s license if you relocate to a new state. If you have a valid license from your previous state, you typically can transfer it and get your new license without taking all the tests required of a new driver.
Your driver’s license is lost or stolen. If your license is missing for any reason, you’ll need a new one quickly because it's illegal to drive without one. The replacement fee tends to be lower than the initial license fee. For example, a Maine license costs $30 originally, but a replacement costs only $5.
Your driver’s license has been suspended or revoked. To reinstate your license after a violation, you’ll typically need to prove you’ve paid fines, attended court-ordered programs and met other requirements specific to your violation. You may need an SR-22 form from your auto insurer, showing you have at least your state’s minimum required liability insurance. In some cases, you’ll have to pass written, vision and road tests as well.
Your current driver’s license is expired or about to expire. In most states, you’ll need to renew your driver’s license after anywhere from two to eight years. You should receive a notice alerting you of the deadline to renew. If your license has been expired for a while (the length of time varies by state), you’ll have to take a driving test again before you can get a new valid license in some states.
You have recently immigrated to the U.S. As an immigrant, you can use an International Driving Permit along with your non-U.S. license to drive legally when you first arrive. You must get the IDP before you move to the U.S., in the country that issued your non-U.S. driver’s license. Once you establish U.S. residency, you’ll need to get an official driver’s license from your new home state.
Driver’s license regulations are decided on a state-by-state basis, so be sure to check with your state’s license-issuing office for specifics.