REAL ID Act: 20 Years Of Delays – Why 2025 Won’t Be Any Different

The ‘Real ID Act’ was passed in 2005, requiring enhanced security measures for people to prove their identity in order to get drivers licenses. Nineteen years later it’s never been implemented. Now TSA says they’ll finally require REAL ID-compliant drivers licenses at airport security starting in May 2025 a full twenty years later. The first deadline was in 2008. Does anyone believe them this time?

As I was writing this I saw “Act now: The Real ID deadline is less than a year away” at The Points Guy, mirroring the message on several other sites that come May 7, 2025 you will not be able to fly without a REAL ID-compliant document. Is that actually true?

Probably not.

Why Government IDs Matter At Airport Security In The First Place

The federal government has ‘no fly’ and ‘enhanced screening’ lists, where they check the names of passengers and decide under what conditions someone is allowed to travel, if at all. It’s a form of pre-crime profiling where people have been added to the list by mistake, for revenge, or for any number of reasons that you aren’t allowed to know. The government claims it’s exempt from judicial review.

In order for these lists to ‘work’ you have to show ID and the government has to be sure the ID is really you – otherwise you’d just fly under a different name.

The requirement of an ID to fly began as a ‘do something’ policy after the explosion of TWA flight 800. President Clinton demanded to be able to immediately announce new airline security measures, and told his National Security Council team to come up with some.

This process is meaningless if people can change the name they fly under. So in 2005 Congress passed requirements for IDs that are harder to fake. Since then, however, rules requiring people to actually have a ‘REAL ID’ have been kicked down the road. At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic I said this would be the perfect excuse to delay it again because nobody wanted travelers hassled or refused entry past security weeks before a presidential election. So they pushed it out to March 3, 2023.

What Does It Take To Be REAL ID Compliant?

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.

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 (if you’re undocumented, better to just drive without taking a test) and social security number (something you didn’t even have to have when I was born)
  • Documentation of your residential address

Why The Deadline Keeps Getting Pushed Back

For years the government has pushed deadlines with warnings that you won’t be able to fly unless your identity document gets updated.

No politician wants to be responsible for voters being turned away at the airport. And we’re always in an election cycle. So the deadline gets pushed back.

If there’s ever a time when it might finally be implemented, it seems like a May 2025 deadline could be it – six months after the upcoming Presidential election (this was not a coincidence) and 18 months before the next congressional.

You Can Still Fly Without REAL ID

TSA has already said that it plans to exempt mobile drivers licenses from REAL ID requirements when May 2025 rolls around.

People also go through checkpoints without firm ID checks all the time.

  • They show ID that may not look like them, but matches their ticket
  • It may not properly scan, where TSA is validating IDs electronically
  • With a couple million passengers daily, any system will have outliers, usually TSA document checkers just accept whatever document they’ve been handed

And 2000 people a day fly without any ID, of course, so the requirement to have a REAL ID isn’t exactly correct. They make you answer personal questions derived from a giant database about you and other Americans to prove your identity instead.

Watch Lists Aren’t Actually Effective In Any Case

Matching your name to the list of people flying on an aircraft ultimately is supposed to matter so that the government can check you against their various watch lists from lists requiring extra security screening to no fly lists.

But the government lists are junk, and the identification process is junk. The FBI has been placing innocent people on no fly lists and there are now over 2 million people on terror watch lists (when everyone’s considered a threat, nobody is). The Supreme Court is allowing one challenge to this government overreach to finally move forward.

  • Formal responsibility for the list rests with the TSA and under 49 U.S.C. § 46110 inclusion is only reviewable by circuit courts in which judges are required to defer to the TSA’s judgment about all alleged facts and are permitted only to review the administrative record created by and provided to them by the TSA itself.

  • Until 2015 the TSA wouldn’t even tell people whether they were on the list (making it difficult to sue to get off the list when you can’t prove you’re on it). The TSA does not tell people why they are on the list.

  • Decisions to put someone on the no fly list are based on predictive pre-crime profiling rather than actual evidence about the individual’s actions or intentions. This is a huge leap in our justice system.

These Lists Aren’t Secure

Targeting lists aren’t only used by the government, and they’re not secure. In fact the U.S. distributes the list to over 1400 private organizations and shares it with other governments. It’s used for purposes beyond national security.

It appears that federal government lawyers have perjured themselves claiming that the list was not shared. It’s even given to “police forces at private universities, hospital security staff” and it’s not clear what, if any, restrictions there are on how the information is used. Meanwhile the government “adds hundreds of thousands of names to the list every year.” The entire list was leaked online via a Bahrain server.

Airport Security Is Security Theater

The TSA itself filed documents in court saying that a decade after 9/11 they did not know of any actual plots against civilian airliners.

Hardening checkpoints though just shifts risk. If airport security were working and there were active threats, we’d have seen attacks against high profile targets that are less secure. If positive name matching against government terror lists was key to security, then why hasn’t the Eras Tour been disrupted?

TSA has often failed to catch over 90% of contraband going through checkpoints, there have been tens of thousands of misconduct complaints against the agency’s staff, and yet we haven’t seen repeats in the U.S. of 9/11 largely because there aren’t as many threats as we think, they’re harder to carry out than we imagine, and because we’ve reinforced cockpit doors and passengers would no longer sit docilely by as an attack was carried out.

Meanwhile there hasn’t been another 9/11-style attack in the 20 years since REAL ID was mandated by law (or the 23 years since 9/11 itself) so there hasn’t been much of a rush to implement it. It doesn’t seem like it’s necessary. If bureaucrats felt that a security risk was imminent, REAL ID would prevent, and they’d be blamed for it when they delay you can be certain there wouldn’t be 20 years of delays.

So After 20 Years Will READ ID Finally Be Enforced?

The default expectation has to be that there will be another ‘extension’ for compliance, because there never hasn’t been one. But for an extension there needs to be a threat to those that would implement it (usually elections) and a face-saving reason for the extension (such as ‘the pandemic’ the last couple of times). The current deadline minimizes electoral risk and the pandemic explanation is no longer viable. I have no doubt there can be others.

In The Atlantic, Jim Harper writes,

Maybe the Department of Homeland Security needs to pinkie-swear to make the 2025 date really, really real, because those airport signs and travel stories have been telling us about a final deadline for more than 15 years. And yet, that deadline has never arrived. If past extensions are any indication, it probably never will.

…If every Real ID holdout decided to get a compliant license between now and May 2025, states probably wouldn’t be able to handle the administrative burden.

We’ll either have too many people without compliant IDs come May 2025, or too many people seeking compliant IDs that they won’t have received them in time, and in either case it will be politically difficult to require passengers to have complied even 20 years after legislation passed requiring them.

The Department of Homeland Security will delay any delay, in order to get more people to comply in the interim, before most likely once again extending the deadline – this time citing the tremendous progress that is being made making it reasonable to give people just a little more time.

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, 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. @Gary,

    Like you I expect it to be pushed or maybe even cancelled. Even with all the warnings you know there will be thousands who show up without one and won’t be allowed to board a plane with a paid ticket. I fully understand there is a process to get through security without any ID (people lose or forget them or have them stolen all the time) but I doubt TSA has the volume of agents to handle probably at least 10x (to be conservative) people who would have to go through a similar such process due to no Real ID. Also, the delay in security would likely cause many of them to miss flights. No politician (of either party) wants to be responsible for that and after all this time we really have to question if Real ID is even needed (it isn’t IMHO).

    BTW, both my kids have it since they got their licenses in the past 10-15 years and had the necessary documents with them. Neither my wife nor myself has it and I frankly don’t plan to spend the necessary time in the DMV to get one. Both of us have passports so that is all that is needed. No big deal.

  2. What would be useful is we go full on China and ban people with poor credit scores from airports. Or rather delinquent accounts and/or bankruptcy.

  3. No thanks, @Charlie, most of the folks reading this blog (including me and I’ll assume you) have been fortunate to avoid poor credit scores, bankruptcy and the like. That said, I would never want to preclude those that haven’t escaped those woes from the small pleasures that travel provides. I’d rather go full on U.S. Constitution, and require a government-issued photo ID to vote.

  4. Thank you for your clearly saying what should be said. Now how do we reach the bureaucrats and politicians who are invested in doing nothing that might make them look “weak”?

  5. Great article Gary. Overall, I agree with you that it probably won’t be passed because it is likely going to be a nightmare if you don’t have an ID, with staffing shortages, screening issues, etc.

    Additionally, all of the irony of this Real ID nonsense is that all along anyone under the age of 18 is able to travel with no ID. I am 16, and at no point do I never need an ID whereas someone over the age of 18 does. And for that matter, what difference does a few days make in terms of who needs an ID and who doesn’t?

    In recent weeks, TSA agents have been refusing me PreCheck because of the fact that I don’t have an ID and I always need an ID. They always send me to the non-Pre line instead. That solves nothing since they use the same ID scanners. A supervisor always solves that though and gets me through, but it shows the “wonderful” employees that TSA hires.

  6. The issue that our government continues to overlap processes and agencies.
    The REAL ID should have nothing to do with your driver’s license. A driver’s license gives you the right to drive a vehicle on the road, and should have nothing to do with traveling to board a flight. A passport, passport card, global entry card, or CLEAR should be the only identification to allow someone to board a flight.
    The REAL ID should only be used by a state for DMV purposes.

  7. It took me less than 15 minutes to get my Real ID. I made my appointment to renew my DL, took my birth certificate and whatever the second item was, and walked out of there with my license. I don’t understand what the big deal is.

  8. Are the illegal immigrants the government is stuffing onto aircraft ready to show Real ID?

  9. Nicely said, Ryan. But remember, these are the people (or at least the organization) that thinks 1 person with 1 liter of a liquid is a threat, but 10 people traveling together each with 1/10th of a liquid are not. As you go through life have patience with people who are paid not to think beyond the rules.

  10. Has anyone tried to use a global entry card as an ID to travel? I don’t think it would work.

  11. @drrichard … Also , many ivy college faculty members are overpaid beyond their level of common sense . Also , many people who ‘think beyond the rules’ are arrested . A lot of the complainers don”t wish to comply with any rules .

  12. A few activist states refused to have Real ID but technically passed because they have a more expensive Enhanced DL for border crossing. Most states made their regular DL compliant.

    If there is a 2025 requirement, those states are going to have problems.

  13. @EgE, I use my GlobalEntry and/or my passport card as TSA IDs all the time. They are considered real ID alternatives and scan just fine at the checkpoints. Last thing I want is misplace my DL.

  14. Since I usually have my passport with me, I just use that. Sometimes I use it at banks. No point in wasting time at the DMV unless it is absolutely necessary.

  15. Gary- please be careful about what you write… You said, “TSA has often failed to catch over 90% of contraband going through checkpoints”…. This does not pass the sniff test- just like you provide data about the best frequent flyer mile deals and how to get the most out of points, please provide a link to provide proof abut this statement. I.E., if you are going to make a living off of Airline News, be on the side of facts?

  16. I have a retired military ID (gray area) that is listed as Real ID compliant but still doesn’t scan after all these years, so I still use my Washington DL that is not compliant because it does scan.

    Our government in action.

  17. As long as there are the government no-fly and watch lists and haraSSSSment screening applicable to otherwise free people at US airports, the government will continue to obsess about and waste resources on passenger identification in the name of passenger “security” and be loathe to scrap the mass domestic surveillance state-enabling REAL ID Act and cut the unfunded state mandates about ID standards. Keep in mind that instead of trying to eliminate the blacklists hitting free persons in the US, the government has administrative actors and politicians trying to expand the US aviation blacklists to hit ever more and more otherwise free Americans.

    Just say no to fleecing and blacklisting.

  18. I refuse to get a REAL ID DL.

    The domestic mass surveillance super state network of the future should be named after the late Republican Congressman Sensenbrenner. He — much like his fellow travelers obsessed about “‘massive” voter fraud by non-US citizens — did his part to undermine the privacy rights of US citizens and other legal residents of the country.

  19. If this sort of ID was required to buy beer and vote I bet they’d get it straightened out quickly.

  20. And yet known Terrorists have been confirmed to have walked through our Southern Border without question or scrutiny.

  21. @Woofie- Or how about any type of Id????? There is a special line at Tucson International Airport for “Non US citizens without a passport”. Meanwhile, I have to show an ID when I go through security.

  22. First off: TSA is not an investigative organization. They are at US airports to prevent weapons, explosives and incendiaries from getting on passenger airlines. And contrary to media reports, TSA officers do a very good job of preventing dangerous items from getting on your flight. Last year, TSA officers prevented more than 10,000 loaded guns, non-loaded guns, and gun parts from getting on your flight. Then there are the potential weapons such as bats, knives, hatchets, machetes, and batons, etc. You’re welcome. Now, addressing the Real ID issue. The best practice is to use your passport, be it US or foreign, to travel; domestically or internationally. This will not only save you money*, but the Secure Flight system will recognize your passport faster than it will a state-issued ID. Plus, many state-issued IDs have security features that cause issues with the Secure Flight system: Florida, Colorado and NY to name a few. *Many states make you renew your drivers’ license every 3 or 4 years at quite a high price, ie California. A US passport is good for 10 years. In closing, come to the airport with a positive attitude and several hours before your flight. The airport is the best show in town… enjoy it.

  23. Getting a passport is easier than getting a REAL ID. Those with passports will use them to get around the regulations.

    I have both, but flash the passport on international travel, even on the domestic legs. Have never been challenged

  24. “Many states make you renew your drivers’ license every 3 or 4 years at quite a high price, ie California.”

    Driver’s license renewal is every five years. The price is $45 or an average of $9 per year. Source: dmv dot ca dot gov. I wish that my registration for each vehicle was anywhere near as cheap. For instance, if I was to register my non op 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee again it would cost $141 for one year.
    Current Registration 65.00
    Current California Highway Patrol 30.00
    Current Vehicle License Fee 3.00
    Current County Service Authority for Freeway Emergencies Fee 1.00
    Current Fingerprint ID Fee 1.00
    Current Air Quality Management District 6.00
    Current South Coast Air Basin 1.00
    Alt Fuel/Tech Reg Fee 3.00
    Current Vehicle Theft/DUI 2 2.00
    Current Transportation Improvement Fee 29.00

  25. The points that some people have made makes sense to me, but many others don’t and most don’t seem to be on point anyhow and are a waste.

    @exit row seat – It’s no more difficult to get a RealID driver’s license. than a Passport, now that you don’t need to produce an original Social Security number to get it. In addition, Passports are much more time consuming to get and cost a heck of a lot more than a RealID driver’s license.

    @marco – Your math is off. Once you get a Real ID you no longer pay extra for it. Renewals of Real ID Driver’s Licenses in every state I’ve checked cost no more than renewing a regular driver’s license. There is only an initial fee to get the first Real ID driver’s license. Therefore, over time they are far less expensive and much quicker to get than a Passport. They’re also far cheaper to replace if they’re lost or stolen compared to a Passport.

    @Jon Biedermann – not that it has anything to do with RealID, every time TSA has had the guts to release their test data when their agents try to breach their checkpoints they checkpoints have been shown to be unmitigated failures with a failure rate in excess of 90% on every test. Considering that the quality of agent has dropped in recent years and that none of the problems identified at TSA checkpoints have been addressed it’s unlikely the failure rate has improved. The reason TSA finds so much contraband, particular guns and ammunition is that an awful lot of air travelers are a pretty darn stupid lot in general.

    @jns – these days it takes about 15 extra minutes to get a Real ID Driver’s license compared to a regular license the first time you get it. Renewal are identical to regular licenses and the same price. Carrying around a Passport isn’t a great idea. They aren’t very durable and if pages get curled too much or torn, they won’t be accepted for travel. If they’re lost or stolen, replacements cost far more than driver’s licenses.

    As to the actual question, will the upcoming May, 2025 deadline for Real ID be extended again, I’m not sure it will. If you asked me a year ago I would have said yes. I believe that if Biden is reelected it is no more than a 40% chance it will be extended, but the situation is very different now than it was a couple of years ago. The last time the deadline was about to hit there were only about 114,170,000 Real ID Driver’s Licenses, about 49% of all licenses. As of January, it’s estimated there were about 145,840,000 Real ID Driver’s Licenses, about 62.6% of all licenses. The guesstimate is that as of May next year will be at about 70-72% of all licenses. Supposedly, only about 68% of American’s fly at least once every 5 years. If that’s true, holding to the deadline likely won’t be the disaster it would have been 2-3 years ago. On the other hand, if Trump is elected, I give it about a 75% chance the deadline will be extended.

  26. The only solution to this nonsense is to abolish, or severely cut funding to the TSA, and privatize it’s functions rather than maintain a bloated bureaucracy that will engage in self-serving measures to justify their own unnecessary existence. TSA isn’t just ineffective, but it must be recognized as a deceitful stone cold fraud that makes all of our lives materially worse, while making nobody better off except the parasites who work there.

  27. @GUWonder How in the world do imagine that my state doesn’t already know everything that’s on the documents that I presented to get my real ID version last time I renewed my license? And, BTW, the clerk confirmed the information I presented without recording or copying them before handing back. Still, I never needed a real ID, as my passport card works just fine.
    @Gary, thanks for the info. I’m normally vacationing around early May. I’ll make sure to start my 2025 sojourn prior to 7 May.

  28. @NSL14, your estimate of time to do something at the CA DMV sounds great but that has not been my experience over the years. Most times it takes an hour or two. Some time can be cut down with an appointment but travel time is still part of it. I renew my driver’s license by internet or mail. The last time I did it, I was able to use the Covid-19 rules to not have to go in. The next time is in 2028. If I am forced to go in, I will get a Real ID driver’s license at that time.

    Passports are quite durable. I get the ones with more pages because I end up with a lot of full page visas in them. Further, traveling on one with less than 6 months left is risky if you are going to another country. The real key to durability is to keep it in something else to keep it from being beaten up. It is best to not carry your passport in your hip pocket. I usually have mine in a money belt. I sometimes carry only a photocopy but that isn’t good enough for many situations while in other countries. A Real ID driver’s license is useless in most of those cases.

  29. I may consider getting a passport card in addition to my passport at the next renewal date. The passport card is Real ID compliant and can easily be used in situations needing a second form of photo ID. Further, it is of a convenient size and is maybe a bit more durable than the passport.

  30. @jns – I didn’t say that it takes 15 minutes to get a Real ID driver’s license the first time you get it. I said it takes about 15 minutes more time to get a Real ID driver’s license than a regular driver’s license. After initially getting the Real ID version, from then on in CA the renewal process and cost is the same as a regular ordinary driver’s license.

    As to damage, I travel constantly for work and I can’t tell you how often I hear tales of woe where people had to get a passport replacement because they bent theirs in the pocket, they accidentally left in their pants when it got washed or they were caught in a rainstorm. Among other things the chip in the passport doesn’t hold up to wetness very well. Last month someone on our flight said they were hiking and got overheated and their passport in their pants got soaked from sweat and their photo because damaged. Apparently many don’t take care of their passport like we do. I’ve never had any damage to mine during my travel to about 100 countries over the years.

    I to get the max pages passport version as I travel enough to fill it up by the time it’s time to renew.

    A Real ID driver’s license is useless internationally except for driving. No one said it wasn’t. In the US its great for domestic travel or if you’re going into a nuclear plant in the US or any US Dept of Energy facility or US military base, which I do go to periodically.

    That said, another reason I prefer to use my Real ID DL domestically is if somehow my passport is lost or stolen that costs a ton to replace it and could cause me to bomb out on an all of a sudden international trip or even a planned one because of how long it takes to get a replacement unless you’re willing to shell out several arms and legs. I can get a driver’s license replacement in no more than 10 days and it’s a whole lot less expensive.

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