Federal Government Blinks, All State Drivers Licenses Still Accepted at Security for at Least 2 Years

The federal government was threatening not to accept drivers licenses from 9 states at airport security checkpoints.

The story was being broadly reported that this would happen, since:

  • States aren’t complying with the federal ‘REAL ID’ Act
  • Therefore the federal government wouldn’t accept IDs from those states.

But it is not happening and won’t for at least two years.

What the Real ID Act Requires

The Real ID Act regulates, among other things, what state identification will be valid for federal purposes. Those federal purposes including identifying oneself to the Transportation Security Administration in order to board commercial aircraft. And several state drivers licenses do not comply with those rules.

A ‘real ID compliant’ license has to have a person’s full legal name, signature, date of birth, gender, a unique identifying number, home address, and a front-facing photo.

There are also specific anti-counterfeiting measures that must be used, and rules on providing the data on the card in a standard machine-readable format.

Prior to issuing a ‘real ID compliant’ license, a state has to require:

  • A photo ID (they make you present a photo ID to get a photo ID..) or ID that includes full name and birth date
  • Documentation of birth date (usually a birth certificate)
  • Proof of legal status (you’re not an illegal alient) and social security number (something you didn’t even have to have when I was born)
  • Documentation of your residential address

Basically, getting a drivers license — especially without already having one — has become a real pain.

States have to store digital copies of these documents as well. States also have to share these databases with all other states.

Travelers Get a Reprieve Because.. Politics

What stories that said REAL ID would be fully enforced failed to account for is that it’s an election year. As I wrote,

Refusing to accept drivers licenses from several states — since they are the primary means most people use for identification — would slow down security checkpoints markedly. That will not be popular, and 2016 is an election year. Stories of people being turned away from a trip to a family member’s funeral, or of security lines wrapped out the doors of JFK airport, would fill the airwaves.

There’s a real political reason for this game of chicken to end in something other than people being hassled at the airport.

And indeed in the game of chicken between states that aren’t complying, and the federal government that wants to force them to do so, the TSA has blinked.

But late Friday afternoon, the Department of Homeland Security said passengers could continue using their current IDs until Jan. 22, 2018. Some would have until Oct. 1, 2020.

According to the DHS release,

Starting January 22, 2018, passengers with a driver’s license issued by a state that is still not compliant with the REAL ID Act (and has not been granted an extension) will need to show an alternative form of acceptable identification for domestic air travel to board their flight. …

Starting October 1, 2020, every air traveler will need a REAL ID-compliant license, or another acceptable form of identification, for domestic air travel.

As I wrote back in September, No, the Government Isn’t Going to Forbid All New Yorkers From Flying Next Year. Why Do You Ask?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Note that there is *no* requirement to have ID in order to fly. The TSA would like you to think there is, but there isn’t.

  2. 2018 and 2020 are election years too.

    Calling DHS’s bluff is easy on this matter. They can’t afford to annoy so many US Senators. Even infuriating the entire Congressional delegation from a single US state may create issues for DHS.

  3. All New Yorkers? You do realize that most New Yorkers don’t even have a Driver License, right?

  4. Colin,

    Most people in NY are not from NYC. And many adults — even if it’s not most adults — from NYC do having driving licenses. And in most of New York, most adults rely upon getting around in a car and do not rely upon public transit for themselves.

    My bet is that the most common ID for adults in New York (at least the state) is the driving license.

  5. What does this mean for folk who are in states that do comply? For example, if you have a state ID but it doesn’t have the Real ID seal, can it still be used till 2018 (at least) for federal purposes?

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