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TSA agent screens passenger at airport

Image: Scott Olson (Getty Images)

For a decade, American travelers have had the luxury of being repeatedly warned about Real ID checks at our nation’s airports and not having to pay any attention to them. But those years of countless delays seem to be coming an end for real this time. Starting on May 3, 2023 — that’s six months away — you’ll need either a Real ID-compliant driver’s license or a passport to fly domestically.

We’ve known this was coming for a while. But much like the Cybertruck, the Real ID reckoning has had a habit of missing launch dates, so it sort of slipped the collective consciousness for a minute. This was all supposed to go down on October 1, 2020, until the pandemic happened and the Transportation Security Administration decided to tack on one more year to the ultimatum. Halfway through 2021, the government settled on a final, final deadline of May 3, 2023. Since we officially crossed the half-year-out mark yesterday, now seems like a good time for a refresher.

What Is Real ID?

If you’ve managed to stay blissfully unaware of the hubbub surrounding Real ID — first, congratulations. Second, it’s basically the federal government’s security screening protocol that supplements your state’s own. By default, your state-issued ID or driver’s license may not be Real ID-compliant, even if you renewed or got it recently.

For example, I moved to Pennsylvania in late 2020, went to my local PennDOT Driver’s License Center and was pretty much handed my new license before I realized it wasn’t Real ID-certified. At that point, I had to go through the whole process all over again, doing every step a second time. Really got the most out of my DMV experience that day — I don’t recommend it.

Image for article titled PSA: Your Plain Old Driver's License Won't Be Good Enough to Fly in 6 Months

Illustration: Jason Torchinsky

But how can you check if you already have a Real ID? Fortunately, it’s as simple as looking for a little black or gold circle with a star inside it, as shown above. That’s the Real ID mark. If your license doesn’t contain it, you’ll need to upgrade to a Real ID or use your passport to fly inside the country after May 3.

What Do You Need to Get a Real ID?

Opting for a Real ID will require certain documentation, too — that’s the screening, after all. It’s been a while since I’ve gone through it, so I’ll defer to the New York Times to handily sum up what’s required of you to obtain your Real ID:

No matter where you live, to apply for a Real ID or change your license over, you’ll need to provide a Social Security number, prove your address through documents like a utility bill or bank statement, and verify your identify through a handful of additional documents like a birth certificate or passport.

In Pennsylvania, stepping up to Real ID costs an additional $30, because my state is so great. Depending on where you live, it might be free. Five states (Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Vermont and Washington) even offer Enhanced Drivers Licenses that already serve as Real IDs, and are sufficient for passage through the Canadian or Mexican borders — something Real IDs can’t help you with.

Should You Get a Real ID?

Ultimately, whether you want to get a Real ID or stick with your passport for domestic air travel is a matter of personal preference.

For me, the less I have to travel with the better, and I’m willing to pay the stupid $30 so I can get through security with the card in my wallet. I’m also willing to pay the $85 and suffer the indignity of an even deeper background check for TSA PreCheck, because I’m all about saving time at the airport, my most loathed of places. By the way, Global Entry holders will be pleased to know that their cards already meet the requirements for Real ID, so there’s no need to get both.

Keep in mind, though, that no card, Real ID or otherwise, will be enough for international travel. For that, you’ll still need an old, trusty passport.

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