REAL ID deadline extended to 2025

Originally published on Dec. 24, 2016, this article was most recently updated Dec. 5, 2022.

For the umpteenth time, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has delayed the date when it will stop accepting some states' standard-issue driver’s licenses as valid identification at U.S. airports.

Last year, DHS extended the deadline for obtaining a REAL ID-compliant driver's license to May 3, 2023. Today (Dec. 5, 2022), the department announced yet another extension to May 7, 2025. That move gives travelers more than two full years to either obtain a state driver's license that is compliant with the REAL ID Act of 2005 or another type of identification which will be acceptable under the provisions of that act. 

Similar delays in the past have been the result of a lack of full state compliance with the requirements for issuing the more secure driver’s licenses. But this time, as with the extension announced in 2021, it is because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. He says state motor vehicle departments need more time to work through the backlog of applications created by the pandemic.

"This extension will give states needed time to ensure their residents can obatin a REAL ID-compliant license or identification card," he said.

When I joined the federal disaster relief effort in October 2017, the TSA had be warning residents of five states that, starting Jan. 22, 2018, they would need an alternative form of identification to fly because their states' processes for issuing standard driver's licenses did not comply with a provision of a federal law passed in 2005. It was a good thing I also brought my passport, as I'd be deployed to the U.S. Virgin Islands until Jan. 26, 2018.

However, by the time I was demobilized and headed home, the TSA had bumped the effective date to Oct 1, 2020. It then delayed it to Oct. 1, 2021, then to May 3, 2023 and now to May 7, 2025.

Why the change?

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 

In anticipation of my state's standard driver's licenses becoming non-compliant during the time I would be deployed on disaster relief duty, I took my U.S. passport, which is one of several types of ID acceptable to TSA other than compliant driver's licenses.

In addition to a passport, military ID, or other similar identification, the states of Minnesota and Washington issue "enhanced driver's licenses" (EDLs) and California is offering what it is calling a REAL ID driver's license. When issuing those 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. Accordingly, states may issue both standard licenses, which may not be compliant with the REAL ID Act, and EDLs, which are compliant.

Washington state issues both standard and EDLs and that is, in a measure, deliberate. Part of the thought process around the state’s prior decision not to require proof of citizenship for a standard driver’s license was that it was better to have people who may not be in the U.S. legally prove their familiarity with prevailing traffic laws by passing a driver’s exam than the alternative of having unlicensed and potentially uninformed drivers on the state’s roads. 

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. Enhanced driver's licenses in Washington state cost $115 for the first issuance and are good for five years if issued in 2023 or 2024, which is $35 more than a standard driver's license.

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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