The REAL Truth About REAL IDs

Originally published on Dec. 24, 2016, this article was most recently updated Dec. 30, 2023.

When traveling over the just-completed holidays, I saw a lot of misinformation about the need to have a REAL ID-compliant driver's license or alternative piece of identification and when that requirement will take effect. Hopefully this post will clear up any confusion and make it easier to prepare for this requirement, which will not take effect until May 7, 2025.


The REAL ID Act of 2005 required that states offer driver's licenses that confirm both the identity and the citizenship of the holder. The deadline for this requirement has been extended so many times I've lost count, but it is currently May 7, 2025, and I understand that is statutorily the latest it can possibly be.

That means you have more than a year to obtain a REAL ID-compliant driver's license if you don't have one, or another form of ID that will confirm you are a U.S. citizen or legal resident.

The need for a state to certify that its driver's licenses are only issued to citizens and legal immigrants is contained in Public Law 109-13, which is also called the REAL ID Act, was passed in May of 2005. It mandates that states and territories must require proof of U.S. citizenship or proof that a person has been “lawfully admitted for permanent or temporary residence in the United States” before issuing a driver’s license or state ID card for those documents to be considered acceptable for “official federal purposes.”

One of those official federal purposes is “boarding federally regulated commercial aircraft.”

Available alternatives 

My state of Washington and the state of Minnesota issue both standard and "enhanced" driver's licenses, or EDLs.  The standard licenses is those states are not REAL ID-compliant. When issuing REAL ID documents, states confirm both the identity and citizenship of the holder. These are acceptable alternatives to a passport for re-entry into the U.S. via land or sea, and are considered acceptable ID under the REAL ID Act for domestic air travel. International air travel will still require a U.S. passport.

In addition to more stringent documentation requirements, EDLs cost a bit more than standard driver’s licenses, but there are alternatives. 

As of this writing, a U.S. passport costs $130 for adults renewing by mail and is good for 10 years. First-time applicants will also be assessed a $35 processing fee. According to the Washington Department of Licensing website, enhanced driver's licenses in Washington state cost $116 for the first issuance and are good for five years. Upgrading your current license to an EDL is $7 per year of remaining validity.

On an annual basis, the cost difference is minimal when comparing a passport and an EDL. A passport costs $13 per year while an EDL costs $7 additional per year over a standard driver's license. Because EDLs only allow international travel to Canada or Mexico by land or sea, anyone who plans to travel internationally would do well to consider obtaining or renewing their U.S. passport.  The additional flexibility it provides is well worth an additional $6 per year.

Other forms of acceptable ID are a U.S. passport card; a passport issued by a foreign government; DHS trusted traveler cards including Global Entry, NEXUS, SENTRI, FAST; U.S. military ID for active duty or retired military and their dependents, and DoD civilians; permanent resident card; border crossing card; airline or airport-issued ID if issued under a TSA-approved security plan; federally recognized tribal-issued photo ID; Canadian provincial driver's license or Indian and Northern Affairs Canada card; transportation worker identification credential or Immigration and Naturalization Service Employment Authorization Card (I-766), among others, according to the TSA website.

Pre-check security line at Sea-Tac Airport in Seattle
Security line at Sea-Tac Airport in Seattle

A final note

While it has not heretofore been required in the United States, requiring proof of citizenship for air travel is not without precedent elsewhere. During our trip to Canada in 2015, all passengers boarding flights from Toronto to Montréal, and from Montréal to Vancouver had to show passports or other proof of citizenship, even though the flights were domestic flights entirely within the borders of Canada.

For additional background, please see my previous post on the topic.

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Photo by Carl Dombek
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