Some States Are Still Screwing Up Real ID

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Screenshot: Pennsylvania Department of Transportation

For as much concern as there’s been over Real ID driver’s licenses over the last couple of years, getting one is actually pretty easy. I recently moved to Pennsylvania and just applied for one last week, with the same documentation and proof of residence already required to change states. It didn’t take long, but it also nearly didn’t happen, because some states are still hopelessly mismanaging what should be a dead-simple process.


Starting October 2021 (the deadline’s been pushed back repeatedly, most recently due to the pandemic), anyone intending to board a domestic airline flight will need a Real ID-certified driver’s license to travel if they don’t have a passport or some other less-common form of TSA-compliant identification. A Real ID license is marked with a star inside a circle, and it’s worth clarifying that you don’t need one to vote, drive, receive federal benefits, participate in law enforcement proceedings or buy alcohol.

I went to my local Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Driver’s License Center and, admittedly, didn’t confirm that the license I was applying for was Real ID-compliant until late in the going. I had wrongly assumed that I would be issued a Real ID license by default because I was moving states. I went through almost the entire process of providing my documents, confirming my voter registration and getting my picture taken without asking the one question I should have at the start: “Am I getting a Real ID?”

When I did ask that question, the clerk told me Real IDs required separate application and an additional fee. Fortunately, this was a miraculously slow day at the DMV, so I was able to walk right back over to the first clerk I had already worked with to essentially go through the same exact license application again — only this one would get me the highly coveted star on my card. I cannot imagine how livid I would have been if I had to wait in a long line.

I have to stress that everyone at this particular DMV was kind and patient, even though they probably had every reason to be annoyed with me. However, I was surprised when I was asked by three separate employees why I wanted a Real ID in the first place. They knew I must have had a passport, since I’d already used that as one of my points of identification to get my driver’s license. I had to repeatedly explain that I’ve flown a lot for work (before COVID-19, anyway), and I wanted a driver’s license that would facilitate easier travel, so I’d have one less item to worry about on the way to the airport.

Image for article titled Some States Are Still Screwing Up Real ID
Illustration: Jason Torchinsky

Look, in a sense I can’t complain. I was in and out of a DMV in less an hour, even though I had to effectively apply for a new license twice. (That’s probably a record, no?) I was told my Real ID would be mailed to me, as many locations don’t print them for security reasons. And then I was on my way.


Still, I can’t help but wonder two things. First, Real IDs are merely optional in Pennsylvania, as they are in may states. Why? According to Statista and the U.S. State Department, 42 percent of Americans held passports in 2018. That’s a much higher percentage than previous years, but it still means most citizens will be unable to travel on a commercial flight unless they go out of their way to apply for a certain type of driver’s license, that incidentally requires the same documentation to issue as a regular license. (At least in Pennsylvania, anyway — other states’ requirements may vary.)

I understand why those simply renewing their license might not want to put in the effort to opt in, because renewals don’t require all the extra paperwork. But some states have handled this properly. In Connecticut, for example, all new drivers license applicants, as well as out-of-state transfers, are automatically given Real IDs. This is the way it should be everywhere.


My second question — and this is something that individual DMVs might have a bit more control over — is why new license applicants aren’t asked whether they want a Real ID from the moment they begin the process?

In my experience, I noticed a television in the building that relayed pertinent info about Real ID, but nothing at the terminals. Certainly no employee ever attempted to explain to me what a Real ID was and ask if I wanted one. It’s possible this is a deficiency of the particular DMV I went to, or something that’s handled better outside the Keystone State; perhaps folks who have also gotten Real IDs can share their stories in the comments, because I’m curious how it’s going elsewhere in the country.


Ultimately, I feel as though communication surrounding Real ID shouldn’t be as bad as it continues to be, especially considering the measures have been brewing for so long and kicked down the curb so many times. My word of advice to those who do want to get a Real ID is to make absolutely sure to ask for it as soon as possible unless you want to spend double time with your friends at the DMV.



When i renewed my passport at the beginning of this year 280 months ago i also got the passport card to just take real id out of the equation since no one knew wth is going on w/it. If you are getting a passport for the first time or renewing it now just pay the extra 40 bucks or whatever it is for a passport card and have that handy for domestic travel.