Real ID requirement for air travel delayed amid pandemic-related lag at motor vehicle branches

Signs are up at airport security checkpoints across the nation to remind travelers they will need a Real ID-compliant license or another acceptable document to board a domestic flight. The deadline was extended to 2023.


By LUZ LAZO | The Washington Post | Published: April 27, 2021

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WASHINGTON — Americans will have two more years to obtain a Real ID driver's license or identification card, the Department of Homeland Security announced Tuesday.

The new deadline for when U.S. air travelers will be required to present the Real ID credential to board a domestic flight will be May 3, 2023. Implementation was scheduled to take effect in October.

Postponing the enforcement of the last phase of the Real ID Act will give motor vehicle departments across the nation more time to process the new credentials after many were closed or reduced services because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Less than half of Americans with a license and state identification card have a Real ID-compliant document, generally identifiable by a star in the upper-right corner.

In announcing the 19-month extension, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Tuesday cited the pandemic's effect on states being able to issue Real IDs.

"Protecting the health, safety and security of our communities is our top priority," Mayorkas said in a statement. "As our country continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, extending the REAL ID full enforcement deadline will give states needed time to reopen their driver's licensing operations and ensure their residents can obtain a REAL ID-compliant license or identification card."

States have been scrambling to comply with the 2005 domestic security program known as the Real ID Act, which was designed to help prevent terrorist attacks and reduce the number of licenses granted to undocumented immigrants. By law, states are mandated to issue IDs with counterfeit-resistant security features. Applicants must provide several documents proving their identity and legal U.S. residency.

The 50 states, the District of Columbia and four U.S. territories are issuing Real IDs, according to DHS, while American Samoa is not yet issuing Real IDs but is said to be on track to become compliant.

Motor vehicle departments across the country have issued 118 million Real ID-compliant driver's licenses and identification cards, according to DHS data. That is about 43 percent of all driver's licenses and ID cards issued nationwide, according to DHS.

Several states were only beginning to issue the new security-enhanced licenses and identification cards when the pandemic hit last year. Because Real ID requires an in-person visit to the DMV, applicants were not able to get the credential during coronavirus-related closures.

Motor vehicle departments have been swamped by a pandemic-created backlog. Many branches are still operating at reduced levels and requiring appointments.

Implementation of the law was to take effect in 2008, but deadlines have been extended to give states more time to comply. DHS has been phasing in enforcement of the mandate. Anyone entering nuclear sites, military bases and federal facilities has been required to present a Real ID since 2014.

Enforcement of the air travel provision at security checkpoints was scheduled to go into effect last fall, but the federal government gave a year-long extension as it became clear that many states were struggling to issue the credential at the onset of the pandemic.

Under the latest extension, starting May 3, 2023, every U.S. air traveler 18 and older will be required to present a Real ID-compliant license or another acceptable form of identification, such as a U.S. passport or military ID, to board a domestic flight.

Delaying the deadline also will give the federal government time to implement changes that could speed issuance of Real IDs, such as allowing electronic submission of certain documents, officials said.