Here’s why you might want to bring your passport to the airport after Jan. 22.

Maybe you’ve seen news reports about changes to identification laws for boarding a domestic flight. And maybe you’ve been confused by those reports — with their mentions of deadlines, extensions and fuzzy state-by-state decisions.

That’s because, well, it’s confusing. And changing all the time. Here’s what you need to know before you hop on a plane in 2018:

  • Starting Jan. 22, travelers from a handful of states may not be able to use their current licenses to board domestic flights
  • As of this writing, those states are Louisiana, Michigan and New York — but negotiations are ongoing to grant those states compliance or an extension, so don’t panic yet
  • States that have been granted extensions have until Oct. 1, 2018, to meet federal requirements on what is called a “Real ID”
  • If you live in a compliant state, you don’t have to rush out and get a new license before you fly; you can wait until you must renew your license, or October 2020, whichever comes first.
  • Want to play it safe? If you have a passport, bring it along if you fly after Jan. 22.

Since 1984, my company, Ovation Travel Group, has provided seamless, cost-effective travel solutions to over 700 of the world’s leading professional organizations. We provide answers to whatever travel need, issue or question anyone might have, and one area where we help businesses is with passports. For example, we inform travelers when an itinerary requires a passport and notify them if their passport is set to expire; some countries require your passport to be valid for at least 6 months beyond your dates of travel, and also that you have a certain number of blank pages available for visa stamps, and we can help with that as well. We can assist with processing passports and even help out with a forgotten passport – once, memorably, we even delivered a passport to a traveler by private jet. However, in over 30 years of working in the travel industry, a passport question is starting to pop up that we’ve never heard before: “Will I need a U.S. passport in order to travel domestically?” And, amazingly enough, the answer might soon be: “Yes.” Here are all the questions you need to be asking, as well as their answers:

What is the REAL ID Act? It all goes back to the REAL ID Act. Initially passed by Congress in 2005, the REAL ID Act was enacted on the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation that the Federal Government “set standards for the issuance of sources of identification, such as driver’s licenses.” The act has since been enforced in three phases, and the government has now reached the final phase, which addresses boarding commercial aircraft. Around 70-80% of existing U.S. driver’s licenses already meet these new standards or have been granted an extension; however, 11 states/U.S. territories are currently under review for an extension.

What is the Current Timetable for Enforcement? While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) initially stated enforcement would begin in 2016, that timetable has now been extended. For states deemed compliant with the REAL ID Act, travelers may continue using their current state issued IDs or driver’s licenses for domestic travel at airports indefinitely. For states not yet deemed compliant, travelers are allowed to continue using their current state issued IDs or driver’s licenses at airports until at least January 22, 2018, with some state IDs accepted until October 10, 2018 if an extension has been granted. After those dates, passengers without the proper driver’s licenses or state issued IDs will have to use other federally approved forms of IDs if their driver’s licenses or state issued IDs are still deemed non-compliant. If passengers don’t have a federally approved form of ID, they could be turned away at airport security checkpoints.

What is the Status of My State/U.S. Territory? As of November 28, this is the status of each state/U.S. territory under the REAL ID Act (you can also find an interactive map on the REAL ID Act website):

What are Acceptable Forms of ID? Starting January 22, 2018, non-compliant driver’s licenses and state issued IDs will not be accepted at airport checkpoints, unless an extension through October has been granted to the state, according to the DHS. After October 1, 2020, all driver’s licenses and state issued IDs must comply with the REAL ID Act. For those states/U.S. territories that are deemed non-compliant, travelers may need to bring an alternative form of identification to the airport, since their licenses may not comply with the law. The TSA provides a list of all acceptable forms of identification for passengers over the age of 18. In addition to driver’s licenses or other state photo ID cards, the TSA states the following as acceptable forms of identification:

  • U.S. passport
  • U.S. passport card
  • DHS trusted traveler cards (Global Entry, NEXUS, SENTRI, FAST)
  • U.S. Department of Defense ID, including IDs issued to dependents
  • Permanent resident card
  • Border crossing card
  • DHS-designated enhanced driver’s license
  • Federally recognized, tribal-issued photo ID
  • HSPD-12 PIV card
  • Foreign government-issued passport
  • Canadian provincial driver’s license or Indian and Northern Affairs Canada card
  • Transportation worker identification credential
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Employment Authorization Card (I-766)
  • U.S. Merchant Mariner Credential

How Do I Get a Passport? For people who reside in states/U.S. territories that have not been deemed compliant, or received an extension through October, an alternative form of ID may be needed as soon as January 22nd. Following that, the acceptable form of ID that most people are likely to have—or have access to applying for—is the U.S. passport. According to the U.S. State Department, around 136 million Americans currently have passports, which is roughly 40% of the population. If you already have a passport but it is set to expire, the U.S. State Department recommends renewal before 2018, as the wait times will be lower. Plus, for adults, the renewal process can be completed by mail. For those applying for the first time, the government is holding special “Passport Acceptance Fairs” throughout November and December. These fairs are being held in multiple states across the country; you can still apply through standard methods, as outlined on the U.S. State Department website. And of course, you can always contact your travel provider for passport advice and assistance.

What will January 22, 2018 Look Like at Airports? At the moment, no one is 100% certain. If the 11 states/U.S. territories listed above have not received an extension by that time, then travelers from those places will need an acceptable ID other than a driver’s license. If extensions have been granted, that timeline shifts to October. The one thing that it is probably safe to say is that there will be confusion, there will be long lines at security checkpoints and there may be travelers who will be denied travel. Consequently, travelers will need to monitor their REAL ID status and show up to the airport early. Don’t forget to bring your patience, and your passport.

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