What Is a REAL ID Driver's License?

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If you love to travel, you’ve probably heard about the REAL ID Act. At the crux of it is a requirement for travelers to have some form of enhanced identification to get through airport security. It’s a new style of driver’s license available to Americans.
But what is a REAL ID driver’s license, and who needs it? How is it different from a typical state-issued driver’s license? Here’s what you need to know.

What Is the REAL ID Act All About?

After the devastating events of 9/11, congress passed the REAL ID Act in 2005 to set standards for identification cards. That includes driver’s licenses. The law enforces that anyone entering a federal facility must have an approved ID card, whether it’s a power plant, domestic commercial flight, or accessing any other federal facilities.
Enforcement of the REAL ID Act was scheduled to begin on October 1, 2020. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, enforcement has been postponed for a year, commencing in October 2021.

What’s Different about a REAL ID License?

A REAL ID driver’s license will look much like any other driver’s license issued by your state. The visible difference signifying it’s a REAL ID license is a black or gold star on the card, a gold or black circle with a white star inside, or a gold bear with a star inside.
In some states, like Washington, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and Vermont, Enhanced Driver’s Licenses are considered to be compliant with the REAL ID Act and will be accepted too, even though they don’t have the star.
It’s what you can’t see that makes a REAL ID driver’s license an enhanced form of identification. The card will be scannable by security agencies to add another layer of identity verification.

Who Needs a REAL ID License?

When enforcement begins in October 2021, anyone trying to access a federal facility, take a domestic commercial flight, get onsite at an armed forces base, or any other federal purpose will need enhanced identification. A REAL ID driver’s license is one acceptable form, but it’s possible to do everything you need or want to do without a REAL ID as well.
Domestic travelers or anyone seeking access to a federal facility may be able to use a valid passport, passport card, military ID, or an enhanced driver’s license.
You can still vote, drive, use postal services, access the court system, and receive federal benefits with a regular driver’s license.

How to Get a REAL ID Driver’s License

To date, around 40% of all driver’s license and ID card holders have received a REAL ID-compliant replacement. That’s around 110 million people. If you’re one of the many who have yet to switch to the new REAL ID driver’s license, the process follows a similar one to obtaining a regular state driver’s license.
Your state’s DMV is responsible for issuing REAL ID licenses, so contact your local branch or visit online to find out how it works near you. Although every state has their own process, you will need to provide:
  • Proof of identity
  • Your Social Security Number
  • Proof of physical address
  • Proof of all legal name changes, if applicable
For non-U.S. citizens legally in the country, you will need to show:
  • A valid Employment Authorization Card (EAD)
  • Valid Permanent Resident Card
  • Or valid foreign passport with current U.S. visa.

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