Real ID is for Real



The federal government has begun to phase in enforcement of standards on state-issued driver’s licenses.

By Molly Ramsdell

More than 12 years after 9/11 and nine years after the REAL ID Act passed, the federal government released a plan on when and how it will phase in enforcement. The law affects all 56 U.S. licensing jurisdictions and more than 240 million individuals who are applying for or renewing their state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards.

Man holding an enhanced driver's license. Congress enacted REAL ID in 2005 in response to recommendations from the 9/11 commission. It creates standards for state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards when used for specific federal purposes defined in the law, which includes boarding commercial aircraft and entering certain federal facilities. 

Supporters say it will increase the country’s security. Yet, opposition to the law has been strong. At least 17 states have enacted laws opposing it, claiming it was a federal intrusion into a state process, a threat to privacy and woefully underfunded. Its estimated price tag to the states is $3.9 billion over 11 years; but to date, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has awarded only $263 million in grants “to improve the security of state identification credentials.”

The plan includes a three-month warning or notification period during each phase before enforcement of ID standards begins. Phase 1 covers only the restricted areas of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security headquarters. Beginning April 21, people from noncompliant states will no longer be able to use their driver’s licenses to enter those areas. They will have to use other federally acceptable forms of ID, such as passports. 

Phase 2 will add restricted areas in all other federal facilities and nuclear power plants. Its warning period begins April 21, with full enforcement beginning on July 21. 

Phase 3 includes all the semi-restricted areas in federal facilities. Full enforcement will begin at these places on Jan. 19, 2015. 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will evaluate the first three phases to determine how best to enforce the law when it comes to boarding a commercial aircraft. Enforcement of this phase will begin no sooner than 2016.

Molly Ramsdell is the director of NCSL’s state/federal office in Washington, D.C.

No Way!

States with laws opposing REAL ID
  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • Washington


Q. If my state is not in compliance, will my constituents’ driver’s licenses become invalid?

A. No. Whether a driver’s license complies with REAL ID does not matter for driving purposes. REAL ID applies only to federal uses.

Q. How can my state be in compliance if it has a law opposing REAL ID?

A. The Department of Homeland Security has determined the state’s driver’s license and its issuance process are comparable to REAL ID.

Q. Why would my constituents need a REAL ID compliant license?

A. They don’t. But, in the future, if they want to use their driver’s licenses for ID to enter certain federal facilities or to board a commercial airline, they will have to have a license that complies. 

Q. Can my constituents still fly domestically on a commercial aircraft using only their noncompliant state-issued driver’s license?

A. Yes, at least until Jan. 1, 2016. When a date is determined to begin enforcement in this area (sometime in 2016), the answer will change to no. However, people can undergo secondary screening as determined by each federal agency and continue using other types of federally acceptable identification, such as a U.S. passport or passport card, a “Trusted Traveler” card, a U.S. military ID, a permanent resident card, a border crossing card, or a Native American tribal photo ID. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is developing a list of other forms of identification that can be used with a driver’s license from a noncompliant state.

Q. What is a restricted area?

A. An area that is normally off-limits to everyone except agency personnel, contractors and guests. Semi-restricted areas are open to the public, but they may be asked to show valid identification.

Q. What are biometrics, and are they required under the act?

A. Biometrics involves the use of biological data to identify someone. Common measurements include DNA, fingerprints, eye retinas and irises, voice patterns, facial patterns and hand measurements. Under REAL ID, states are required to use a face biometric standard that allows for facial recognition and authentication, but not fingerprints, retinal scans or radio frequency. 

Q. Can my state receive an extension now if it does not currently have one?

A. Yes. But it will expire at the same time as the others, on Oct. 20, 2014. 

Q. My state received an extension; what happens when it expires on Oct. 20, 2014?

A. It depends. If your state is making efforts and showing progress toward compliance, it may receive an additional extension. But if the state is showing no effort and making little progress, it will be deemed noncompliant and its driver’s licenses and identification cards will not be accepted for federal purposes as defined in the law.

The Basics

REAL ID requires identification cards to contain the following elements in a common readable format.

  • Full legal name
  • Signature
  • Date of birth
  • Gender
  • Unique, identifying number
  • Address of principal residence
  • Front-facing photograph of the applicant
  • Specific security features

Applicants must provide documentation of these elements.

  • Name
  • Address of principal residence
  • Birth date
  • Work authorization status or Social Security number
  • Evidence of lawful status in the United States

Additional Resources

NCSL Resources

Other Resources