Travel is tricky enough, but to add to the already confusing world of air travel, the U.S. government has been teasing us with updated identification requirements for what seems like forever. After years of changed dates, extended deadlines, and general defiance at the state level, there’s still a lot of confusion around the REAL ID Act, particularly when it comes to modern air travel.
Do you need a passport to travel within the U.S. once this goes into effect? What does this mean, and how do you prepare if your ID isn’t already compliant? We’ll clear a few things up regarding this issue and explain the use of your passport when traveling domestically.
For starters, the REAL ID Act was slated to become law back on Oct. 1, 2020. However, the unprecedented circumstances of the last few years — traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic in particular — pushed the execution date. Now that date has been changed yet again. According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), all U.S. travelers must meet the REAL ID requirements to board domestic flights by May 7, 2025 (it was last slated for May 3, 2023, with October 1, 2021, and then to May 3, 2023, as the dates before then). While you may not need a passport to travel, you will need a REAL ID.
Every state will require a REAL ID
If you thought maybe your state wouldn’t comply with the act, we’re sorry to say that every territory and state will require a REAL ID. Some states have already started issuing them, so you may have one.
The REAL ID won’t get you everywhere
For trips to Mexico (by land) and Canada, and other international travel, you will still need a passport to enter. The REAL ID isn’t a substitute for your passport.
The REAL ID isn’t a passport
When you get your new ID, it doesn’t replace a passport. This can’t be used to fly outside of the U.S., but it could be used as a second form of ID. It’s also not a visa, it’s just your ID taken up a notch.
According to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), all adult passengers (18 and above) must show valid identification at the airport to travel. The identification must show your picture, name, and state of residence. It doesn’t necessarily need to be your passport, which means you can fly domestically in the U.S. in 2023 without a valid passport for travel.
If you don’t have a passport, there are other acceptable forms of identification, including:
- U.S. passport card
- State-issued driver’s license
- DHS trusted traveler card
- State-issued Enhanced Driver’s License
- U.S. Merchant Mariner Credential
- Border crossing card
- Permanent resident card
- U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) ID
- Tribal-issued photo ID
Believe it or not, even if you don’t have any form of ID because, say, you forgot it at home, it’s lost, or you’re a “sovereign citizen,” you’re still able to fly within the U.S. You’ll need to complete an identity verification process as required by the TSA.
Don’t plan on breezing through airport security, though, because you’ll be subject to additional (i.e., lengthier, more intensive) screening. Children under the age of 18 are not expected to provide identification when traveling domestically.
There is a list of acceptable IDs for travel within the U.S. until the REAL ID Act goes into effect. While you could travel in the U.S. with any of the alternate IDs, that will likely change once the REAL ID requirements take effect in May 2025. In this case, you’ll be able to use your state-issued ID or driver’s license to board flights, however, it must have the REAL ID indication with a star at the upper corner.
According to the DHS, “All 50 states are now in full compliance issuing these cards, with most states becoming compliant in the last four years.” If you renewed your last ID before your state was compliant, you’re now able to receive a REAL ID-compliant version at your next visit.
In the absence of a REAL ID, you will be able to use a valid passport, a U.S. military ID, or a federal government PIV card for domestic travel. Even if you opt to use your passport, make sure it’s updated by May 7, 2025. Passport renewals take about eight to 11 weeks for routine service and five to seven weeks if expedited. And that’s if everything goes smoothly. Sometimes there is a backup in the passport application process, and it takes longer.
There’s no guarantee, according to the Department of State, so plan accordingly. Without a passport, REAL ID-compliant card, or any other accepted forms of identification, you won’t be allowed through TSA checkpoints, meaning you won’t be able to fly within the U.S.
- If the new date sticks, when it gets here, then yes, you will.
- You’ll also need it if you want to enter federal facilities.
Beginning May 7, 2025, if they don’t have a passport, all U.S. travelers will need a REAL ID to fly for domestic travel. The ID will be required to access any federal facility, so, for example, you won’t be able to visit some national monuments, federal buildings, or loved ones at military installations without one.
This law will apply to all 50 states and territories, including Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Without the ID, you could still use your passport to fly locally. But that could still be a potential challenge for the almost 60% of U.S. citizens who don’t have a passport.
You get your REAL ID through your local Department of Motor Vehicles office, AAA, or regional state offices. It’s possible to complete the necessary documentation online before visiting the office, too, so be sure to check the minimum requirements before applying.
When traveling as a resident, you’ll need a valid passport, driver’s license, state ID, or military ID. Before traveling, be sure to check your identification to ensure it is valid and current. Also, take time to learn about the laws of the state you’re flying to — that helps avoid delays and frustrations.
U.S. citizens can also use state-issued enhanced driver’s licenses (EDLs) to fly locally. Know that EDLs are only available in select states, including New York, Washington, Minnesota, Vermont, and Michigan. They’re typically given to residents in states close to U.S. borders to comply with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.
If you’re a foreign national traveling within the U.S., you’ll need your passport, so be sure to keep your passport safe while traveling. Flying within the U.S. without a passport as a foreign national could be quite stressful.
On the other hand, green-carded residents must have their regular photo ID and green card to fly within the U.S. The card also functions as a driver’s license or other ID, and you’re not required to have a passport for domestic travel.
- The sky is the limit — within the U.S.
As of March 2023, there are no states that require passports from U.S. citizens to fly domestically. Your airline or the TSA should never ask you to present a valid passport. Of course, you could carry it with you for additional photo identification in case you lose your other forms of ID.
Bottom line: You can fly to all 50 states and surrounding territories without a passport. Just make sure to carry either your driver’s license or a state-issued ID. To avoid frustrations in the future, ensure your driver’s license and other ID are REAL-ID compliant before May 2025. You’ll need a passport to travel internationally, so it’s vital not to leave it at home if your travel plans are likely to include leaving the U.S.
If you have a trip planned for the next few years, it will be business as usual, where you won’t have to worry about having a passport or REAL ID, anyway. But after that, you will need a REAL ID, and if you don’t have one, you’ll need a valid passport. Either get ready to get your passport — which is good for 10 years — or your REAL ID before 2025, not forgetting about how long it could take to get that passport. Things will probably be a bit rough, and we’ll have some growing pains while everyone adjusts to the new REAL ID rules, so it might be better if you have a passport to be safe.
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