REAL ID: What Travelers Need to Know

Meghan Coyle
Rosemarie Clancy
Elina Geller
By Elina Geller,  Rosemarie Clancy and  Meghan Coyle 
Edited by Mary M. Flory

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The deadline to get a REAL ID has been extended several times, and for many reasons. Certainly, a global pandemic likely was an inopportune time to send everyone to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a fresh identification card so the deadline (which previously was set for Oct. 1, 2020) was extended to May 3, 2023.

But the deadline has been extended once again. At the end of 2022, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it had extended the REAL ID full enforcement date by another 24 months. Now, the May 3, 2023 deadline has been postponed to May 7, 2025.

The DHS cited "the lingering impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the ability to obtain a REAL ID driver’s license or identification card" as the primary reason for the delay.

But once May 2025 rolls around (and assuming the deadline doesn't get extended again), U.S. travelers must be REAL ID compliant to board domestic flights and access certain federal facilities. That means you'll eventually need a REAL ID-compliant driver's license (or another government-issued REAL ID) to be able to fly domestically, similar to how you need a passport to fly internationally.

While the should come as good news to procrastinators — considering the possible (which may take as long as six months for you to receive from the time you apply) — it's still a wise move to get that REAL ID sooner rather than later.

What is a REAL ID?

REAL ID is an enhanced driver's license that meets newly issued requirements that ensure secure production and issuance of licenses and IDs. The goal is to prevent or severely curb copying or altering.

Do I need REAL ID to fly in 2023?

No, you do not need a REAL ID to fly in 2023. You have until early May 2025 to obtain a REAL ID-compliant driver's license.

What is the REAL ID Act?

The REAL ID Act is a federal law that was passed in 2005 in response to the 9/11 attacks. The goal was to set standards for sources of identification used to enter federal facilities and fly on commercial aircraft, which are regulated by the federal government.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) then announced plans to phase in more secure driver's licenses that are compliant with REAL ID guidelines. These require applicants to provide documents that show the following as proof of identity:

  • Legal name.

  • Date of birth.

  • Social Security number.

  • Primary address (two items).

  • Citizenship status.

It has taken several years to implement the REAL ID Act because driver’s licenses are issued by states' departments of motor vehicles, so each state had to comply with the requirements outlined in the act before issuing new IDs to residents.

There are a few things contributing to the confusion surrounding REAL ID. Some states have started issuing Enhanced Driver’s Licenses (EDL), and they work the same as REAL ID. Those states include New York, Michigan, Minnesota, Vermont and Washington.

To figure out whether your license is compliant, look for a black or gold star in the upper right-hand corner, like this:

How will REAL ID affect your travels?

Once the new policy goes into effect, domestic airline passengers who are older than 18 will need to have a REAL ID or other acceptable identification (this could be a passport) to get past TSA security. There are a few other forms of ID beyond a REAL ID, passport or EDL that can be used to board a domestic flight, including:

  • DHS trusted traveler ID.

  • Passport card.

  • Border crossing card.

  • Permanent resident card.

Check the Transportation Security Administration rules to see if you have an acceptable alternate form of ID. But in other words, if you're procrastinating on getting your REAL ID but have a flight scheduled after May 7, 2025 (and you don't anticipate updating your ID in the meantime), you could present something like a passport, and be able to fly.

And with that in mind, go ahead and apply for that REAL ID anyway. You likely don't want to carry your valuable passport on a domestic trip, as it's annoying to replace should you lose it. Get that REAL ID now, and leave your passport at home.

How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:

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