Roughly 99 million Americans don't have the right ID to get through airport security checkpoints beginning next October, according to a recent survey by the non-profit trade group U.S. Travel Association. That's because October 1, 2020 marks the deadline that the REAL ID Act goes into full enforcement, and the list of IDs that the TSA will accept changes. Even though that date is still about a year away, we strongly recommend to all our clients that the time to act is now, in order to avoid a major hassle at the airport.

In an attempt to reinforce the new rules and ensure compliance, the TSA started displaying REAL ID notification signs at airports back in April, and began verbally advising travelers of REAL ID requirements back in August. Last month, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a press release reminding travelers of the deadline. Acting Secretary Kevin K. McAleenan stated: "This is an important step in enhancing commercial aviation security and we urge travelers to ensure they have compliant documents [...] DHS is committed to working with states as they continue their efforts to issue REAL IDs to Americans."

Understandably, my company, Ovation Travel Group, has gotten a lot of questions about the REAL ID Act. The good thing about the REAL ID Act is that we've known about it for a long time. What's complicated is the way effective dates, deadlines and deadline extensions have been in flux. At the same time, state and territory-specific compliance status as well as the application process in each state/territory has also been ever-evolving. But now we're at a point where the deadline is less than a year away, and that will go by fast. Here is what you need to know:

Overview of the REAL ID Act.

The REAL ID Act was enacted on the 9/11 Commission's recommendation that the Federal Government "set standards for the issuance of sources of identification, such as driver's licenses." Initially passed by Congress in 2005, the REAL ID Act establishes minimum security standards for state-issued driver's licenses and identification cards and prohibits federal agencies, like TSA, from accepting licenses and identification cards from states that do not meet these standards for official purposes, such as getting through the airport security checkpoint to board a plane. It has since been enforced in three phases and has now reached the final phase.

Compliance status of states and territories.

Currently, 47 out of 50 states are REAL ID compliant:  Oregon has an extension until August 7th, 2020; Oklahoma has an extension until September 18th, 2020 and New Jersey is under review. As for US territories, all are compliant with the exception of the Northern Mariana Islands, which have an extension until February 28, 2020, and American Samoa, which is under review. An interactive map that includes details on each state/territory can be found on the REAL ID Act website.

Forms of ID that the TSA accepts.

The DHS states that "Until full enforcement of REAL ID begins on October 1, 2020, DHS and its component agencies, including TSA at its airport security checkpoints, will continue to accept for identification purposes all state-issued driver's licenses and identification cards issued by both compliant states as well as noncompliant states with a valid extension." After full enforcement, in addition to REAL ID compliant driver's licenses or other state photo ID cards, the TSA states the following are acceptable forms of identification:

  • US passport
  • US passport card
  • DHS trusted traveler cards (Global Entry, NEXUS, SENTRI, FAST)
  • US 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
  • US Citizenship and Immigration Services Employment Authorization Card (I-766)
  • US Merchant Mariner Credential

Appearance of REAL IDs.

In general, REAL ID compliant cards are marked with a star at the top of the card. These include gold and black stars, star cutouts in gold and black circles and even a star cutout within a gold grizzly bear; examples of what these look like can be found here. In its most recent press release, the DHS also noted: "Michigan, Vermont, Minnesota, and New York states issue both REAL ID and state-issued enhanced driver's licenses, both of which are acceptable. Washington state issues enhanced driver's licenses only. These documents will be accepted at the airport security checkpoint when the REAL ID enforcement goes into effect." If you aren't sure if it's compliant, contact your state driver's license agency.

Process for getting a REAL ID compliant license or state ID.

Unfortunately, there isn't a single, universal process for getting a REAL ID. In fact, everything from where and when to apply to what documents are needed can vary greatly from state to state. The good news is that pretty much all state DMV and/or Secretary of State websites now have extensive details on the process, including instructions, FAQs, downloadable forms, videos and interactive tutorials. But while there are many differences between states, it's important to note that in general the process is more involved than getting a "regular" license and many states are encouraging people to complete whatever paperwork they can ahead of time. Many states are already reporting long lines at the DMV due to the REAL ID Act, and that's likely to increase over the next 10 months.

The bottom line is that travelers who haven't already done so need to get their paperwork in order sooner rather than later, particularly as the 2020 deadline gets closer. Otherwise, up to 99 million Americans are going to spend a lot of time waiting at the DMV.