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What’s with the Real ID License, and Do You Need One?

A TSO checking the ID of a traveler.

After Oct. 1, 2021, your standard driver’s license won’t get you as far as it once did. If you don’t already have a Real ID or enhanced driver’s license, here’s what you need to know and when you should upgrade.

Editor’s Note: The original deadline was Oct. 1, 2020. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the Department of Homeland security has pushed the deadline back to Oct. 1, 2021. This article has been updated to reflect the change. 

What’s a Real ID?

In 2005, the U.S. Congress passed the REAL ID Act to set national standards for issuing of forms of identification. For more thorough info, you can visit the Department of Homeland Security website, but here are the key details:

  • Starting Oct. 1, 2021, a regular driver’s license will no longer be considered a valid form of identification for domestic air travel or entry into certain federal facilities. However, other TSA-approved forms of ID, like a U.S. passport, will still be acceptable for domestic air travel.
  • If you don’t upgrade to a Real ID or enhanced driver’s license, you’ll still be able to use your standard one to drive, purchase alcohol, or for non-airline travel.

How quickly you should upgrade your identification depends on your travel and work requirements. If your driver’s license doesn’t expire for several years, and you never fly and don’t work in a federal facility, it’s not urgent that you upgrade.

However, if you’re a frequent flier or work at a facility with secure access, you’ll want to visit the issuing agency in your state as soon as possible to get things sorted out.

Which Is Better: Real ID or Enhanced?

The video below (courtesy of the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles) explains the differences between a REAL ID and an enhanced driver’s license, as well as the option of sticking with an old ID.


So, what’s the big difference? An enhanced driver’s license is a Real ID-compliant form of ID. You can use it to cross land borders from the U.S. into both Canada and Mexico without providing a passport.

If you already have a passport and don’t mind carrying it with you to cross land borders, there’s no reason to get an enhanced driver’s license. If you frequently cross land borders (and live in a state that offers enhanced driver’s licenses), the $30 to $50 it costs to upgrade might be worth it if you don’t want to have to carry an extra form of ID.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow is a professional writer with two decades of experience. She has written and edited for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and more. Yvonne is a published poet and short story writer, and she is a life coach. Read Full Bio »
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