How Will the REAL ID Act Impact You?

In 2018, driver's licenses issued in nine states won't be acceptable identification at TSA checkpoints.

U.S. News & World Report

How Will the REAL ID Act Impact You?

A sign directs travelers to a security checkpoint staffed by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers at O'Hare Airport on June 2, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.

You may need to pack another form of ID soon.(Getty Images)

There's already plenty for travelers to consider when flying: strategies for packing light, tricks for dealing with long security lines and sanity savers when seated next to obnoxious passengers. The reality is you must take plenty of precautions for smooth, hassle-free travel, beyond picking the right seat or securing affordable plane tickets. And in case you haven't heard (or noticed the signage at select U.S. airports), there's a big new rule coming down the pike on Jan. 22, 2018, when the the REAL ID Act will be enforced and driver's licenses in nine states will no longer be a valid form of identification at TSA checkpoints. If you live in Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Washington, you'll need to pack another accepted form of identification to travel domestically.

Traveling is already challenging enough, so why is the federal government mandating the new ID restriction? In 2005, the REAL ID Act legislation passed through Congress in an effort to make security requirements more stringent in response to the 9/11 attacks and the "global war on terror," explains Brenda Sprague, deputy assistant secretary for passport services at the Bureau of Consular Affairs. While many state and federal officials have opposed the new requirements based on privacy concerns that user information could be easily stored in a national database in the future, supporters of the new federal standards say they're critical for mitigating fraud and identify theft, and heightening national security.

The objective is to make fraudulent IDs difficult to obtain and the process for issuing IDs stricter. The key differentiator between standard state driver's licenses and those that comply with the REAL ID Act is the "level of rigor" required to obtain an ID, Sprague says. Applications for REAL ID-compliant licenses require a full legal name, date of birth, social security number and a higher standard for showing proof of identity. What's more, all states must become REAL ID-compliant by 2020.

"If you're planning travel for 2018, make checking your ID a top item on your to-do list this year," advises Christine Sarkis, senior editor of SmarterTravel. "The REAL ID Act deadline isn’t straightforward, but it is real, so it's worth spending the five minutes it will take to familiarize yourself with the specifics," she says. To help you dodge unnecessary hurdles in 2018 and beyond, U.S. News gathered tips from experts as you prepare for the new domestic air travel rules.

You Must Carry a REAL ID-Compliant Form of Identification

Currently, only 25 states and the District of Columbia issue licenses that adhere to these new REAL ID standards, with more stringent proof-of-identity and legal residency requirements (think: documentation like a Social Security number). As for the noncompliant states, the government has granted extensions until Oct.10, 2017, to change their practices.

Don't have a REAL ID-compliant license? Accepted alternate forms of identification (listed on the TSA website) include an enhanced driver's license, a U.S. passport or passport card, a U.S. military ID, a trusted traveler card (think Global Entry or NEXUS), a permanent resident card and a foreign, government-recognized passport, among other options.

"The Department of Homeland Security has a REAL ID FAQ that's an easy and up-to-date way to figure out whether you'll be able to use your existing driver license, upgrade to an enhanced license or start planning to travel with a second form of identification – most likely a passport," Sarkis says. Aside from reviewing the FAQ and taking necessary steps ahead of your flight, note additional measures if you'll be traveling with children. While minors under 18 will not need to provide a REAL ID-compliant form of identification for domestic travel, their adult companions will be required to supply an approved form of identification in 2018.

How to Get Through TSA Security Screenings

If your state is not currently REAL ID-compliant, there's no better time to renew or apply for a passport, Sarkis explains. "A decade ago, there was a huge surge in passport demand because of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative," she says. As a result, 10-year passports are set to expire in the near future, "and the wave of renewals is pairing with an increase in demand as travelers prepare for upcoming REAL ID Act regulations," she adds. Plus, you'll need to account for slower processing times given the spike in renewals, she adds.

Aside from ensuring your passport is up-to-date, it's wise to consider TSA PreCheck or Global Entry for an expedited security clearance, Sprague says. "In two trips, you have paid it," she says, highlighting that the $100 Global Entry fee (or $75 PreCheck cost) and rigorous enrollment in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Trusted Traveler program allows you to breeze through security lines for a nominal fee, considering members are granted a five-year enrollment period. Tom Spagnola, senior vice president, supplier relations at CheapOair, also advises applying for the Global Entry card. "It has so many advantages," he explains, pointing out that Global Entry not only affords an efficient process for getting through customs checkpoints, but it also automatically enrolls you in TSA PreCheck, granting you speedy clearance at airports across the country.

Review Upcoming State Deadlines to Stay Prepared

While the REAL ID Act will shift security measures and impact domestic travel, compliance is not expected to slow down TSA screenings, Sprague says. It's easy to stay informed on the latest developments with the comprehensive information available on the Department of Homeland Security's website, she adds. Beyond consulting the DHS website and renewing your passport, look out for signage at your closest airport to stay abreast of any changes in statewide policies and extensions underway.

"[The REAL ID Act] truly is, based on the world in which we live now, a great thing to have," Spagnola says. And though the implementation will be gradual, he adds, it's best to take the new rules seriously and stay proactive, as the restrictions are going to be enforced and federally mandated in the coming years.

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