The federal REAL ID Act of 2005 is an anti-terrorism law aimed at making it more difficult for terrorists and criminals to hide their identities by fraudulently obtaining a driver’s license. REAL ID prohibits federal agencies from accepting driver’s licenses that do not meet certain standards set by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
The driver’s license is the preferred form of identity in the United States. We use our driver’s license for a whole host of purposes, ranging from boarding an airplane to opening a bank account to employment verification. Furthermore, the federal government depends on the integrity of these documents. For example, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) accepts driver’s licenses for the purposes of boarding an airplane and other federal agencies depend on them for access to secure federal buildings.
And while driver’s licenses were never intended to be the preferred form of identification, they naturally evolved into that role, as few Americans have passports. Driver's Licenses are provided at the local level, contain a photo, and are issued by a state government and therefore convey legitimacy. Because of that legitimacy, criminals and terrorists will continually attempt to fraudulently obtain driver’s licenses under assumed or fictitious identities.
The 9/11 Commission understood this in 2004 when it made its recommendation that "Secure identification should begin in the United States. The federal government should set standards for the issuance of birth certificates and sources of identification, such as driver's licenses. Fraud in identification document is no longer just a problem of theft. At many entry points to vulnerable facilities, including gates for boarding aircraft, sources of identification are the last opportunity to ensure that people are who they say they are and to check whether they are terrorists."
As a result of that recommendation, Congress passed the REAL ID Act of 2005, setting standards to secure our driver's licenses from criminals and terrorists. The REAL ID standards secure every point of the process. For example, documents presented as proof of identity and lawful status are verified with the issuing agency, meaning that if a birth certificate is presented as proof of identity, the REAL ID standards require that the birth certificate is verified with the vital records agency that issued it. Social Security cards also must be verified with the Social Security Administration. Driver's licenses and ID cards must have certain security features to prevent counterfeiting. Physical locations where licenses and IDs are issued must be secure, as well as the card stock they use. Front line employees must be trained in fraudulent document recognition to thwart impostors using counterfeit source material.
The Transportation Security Administration has begun posting enforcement notices in airports for the upcoming October 20, 2021 enforcement date. People with driver's licenses from noncompliant states will have to use alternate driver's licenses if their state isn't caught up by then.
To view more of the concepts, check out our REAL ID Requirements brief.
To see if your state is compliant or plans to be, check out our map.