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The Truth about REAL ID

2016 is the year the Feds promise to crack down on REAL ID hold-outs. Or is it? What is an Enhanced Driver’s License (EDL) and will that be good enough? There’s a lot of information out there about REAL ID and EDLs so what is truth and what is fiction? Here’s what you need to know so you’re not caught short at the airport.

You may have read about REAL ID over the years. The act was passed based on recommendations from the 9/11 Commission to prevent non-resident terrorists from getting their hands on new, more secure IDs. This essentially meant that all IDs issued by states had to comply with a set of criteria never before imposed – proof of legal residency or citizenship. The problem is many states balked and the regulations have been pushed back several times, essentially negating the supposed security component for the past ten years.

Then, this January, rumors started circulating that the Department of Homeland Security would no longer let states slide. Sure, some states still have exemptions (CA, NJ, NY, TX, VA among others) but others were officially deemed lacking (IL, MO, NM, WA) and passengers from those locales would supposedly be in danger of not getting on airplanes later this year. Cue the news cycle and loads of misinformation.

Reality turned out to be very different. DHS issued guidelines on January 8 to clarify when air travel restrictions will be put in place. Circle this date on your calendar – January 22, 2018. That is when you will be required to “present proper identification issued by REAL ID compliant states or a state that has received an extension.” As of October 1, 2020, every adult air traveler will need a REAL ID-compliant license, or another acceptable form of identification such as a passport, passport card or military ID for domestic air travel. Remember, anyone under 18 does not need to provide identification if traveling with a companion in the U.S.

So it turns out that we will have two years of education before this actually starts to be enforced. The only current exception, implemented last October, is a compliant ID is required to enter a military base or federal site that requires one. What about Federal museums? ​CheapOair SVP of Supplier Relations Tom Spagnola says, “In regards to museums and national landmarks, tourists will not need a Real ID at museums and federal facilities that don’t currently require an ID.”

Now let’s say you have an EDL already – this type of license lets you return via land and sea from Mexico, Canada and parts of the Caribbean but not air – will that qualify you to board a plane or enter a federal facility? Yes, but that does not necessarily mean states that issue them are fully compliant. Huh? Issuing states such as New York already hold exemptions but if you are a Washington resident, then your state is not compliant and unless you have an EDL you would have to show a passport as of 2018. How would you even know you had the right ID? Spagnola says, “On licenses that are compliant, there will be a star stamped in the upper right corner of the ID.”

Part of the confusion is that the REAL ID act does not explicitly force states to change their licenses. It only allows federal authorities to ban non-compliant forms of ID from any space they control, aka military bases, secure facilities and commercial airliners. So the end result has been much foot dragging on the part of states and a confusing system that is ripe for misinformation. But the truth is out there and the holdouts have essentially two years to ensure their citizens are not inconvenienced at the airport. Until then, regular licenses suffice.

This post will be updated as information evolves. DHS.org has a good overview of the requirements.

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