Update, April 27, 2021: Guess what? The government delayed Real ID yet again. Click here to read about the new deadline.
We really mean it this time: Real ID becomes mandatory at U.S. airports on October 1, 2021.
We know. Americans have heard this warning before. A perennial victim of politics and pandemics since the formulation of the Real ID Act in 2005, the deadline has been announced, delayed, re-announced, and re-delayed. After all that folderol, you'd be forgiven if you thought it didn't matter.
But soon, it will matter. Starting this fall, Americans can't fly if they show up to the airport with an old-fashioned driver's license.
Eleven months ago, just before the pandemic changed everything, Arthur Frommer wrote about how it was finally time to update your identification to comply with new systems before the then-deadline in October 2020.
"Persons who do not possess a Real ID, a fateful piece of identification, will not be permitted to board their flight," he wrote. "Ordinary drivers’ licenses without a Real ID designation will not be accepted."
Arthur's message is still true, except Covid moved the deadline back by one final year to October 1, 2021. For good.
What's more, people with expired documents probably won't be given any more slack at security checkpoints. In 2020, if you had a driver's license that was about to expire, most states were willing to let it slide for a while, and the TSA went along. But that latitude is coming to an end.
In states like Texas, for example, the waiver ends on April 14, 2021. If you're caught with an expired license after then, there will be penalties—the least of which will be that come autumn, you won't be allowed to board flights.
Once everyone is caught up to the new national standard, the new I.D.s will make it easier for the Transportation Security Administration's incoming self-scan checkpoints to function and access flyer safety information.
Double-check your I.D., because depending on where you live, you might already have Real ID and not know it. In Georgia, for instance, all driver's licenses have been Real ID–compliant since 2012, while Missouri didn't have the option until the spring of 2019.
Your state's department of motor vehicles will tell you how you can know for sure, but in many places, a Real ID is indicated by the addition of a little gold star in the upper right corner (pictured on the example Iowa license above). Some states do it cuter—California adds the emblem of a golden bear.
What's involved in getting a Real ID? Not a whole lot more than getting a regular driver's license. The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the I.D. standard, says that at the very least, you'll need five things: "You must provide documentation proving: 1) full legal name; 2) date of birth; 3) Social Security Number; 4) two proofs of address of principal residence; and 5) lawful status."
Your state may request a little more info or ask you to make an in-person appointment, but many states are allowing citizens to obtain Real IDs online without retaking driver's tests.
This is your moment to get ahead of the rush. As of October 1, if your identification doesn't conform to Real ID, it cannot be used at TSA checkpoints or to enter federal government buildings.
Passports will still be honored by the TSA, and so will passport cards (but, as usual, passport cards are only for land crossings and domestic travel). Fair warning: As travel begins to pick up again, there might be a spike in passport applications in 2021.
If you want to be able to fly later, you still have time now to sort out your I.D.