What You Need to Know About the REAL ID Act

January 29, 2018 Michael van Gestel

This blog was originally published in 2018, and due to disruption from to COVID-19 dates may no longer be accurate.

What You Need to Know About the REAL ID Act

Whether you’re a holder of a US driver’s license, or a business that relies on them, you’ll have heard a lot about the long-awaited REAL ID Act in the news this week. It came into effect in California on Monday 22-January, and will eventually become mandatory across the US. But why do we need new ID cards, and what are they for?
Here’s what you need to know.


Put simply, it’s a new ID card that US citizens will need to board airplanes.
But it goes a little deeper than that. The ID cards are just one part of wider modifications to laws around security, authentication and immigration. Essentially, the goal is to tighten up on the procedures for issuing state driver's licenses and identity documents. REAL ID standards will cover everything from the process for verifying cardholders’ identities, to the physical security features of licenses and ID cards, and control over the facilities where credentials are stored and produced.


Security. The idea was born way back in 2005 as part of the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror.
Once it’s been fully implemented, the REAL ID ACT will make it much harder for terrorists and criminals to forge identity documents and gain access to aircraft. It also covers nuclear power plants and some federal facilities – what the Act calls “official purposes”.


It’s a joint effort between the Department of Homeland Security and US states and territories.
Though participation by states is voluntary, Federal agencies will be banned from accepting IDs from non-compliant states for official purposes.


By October 1, 2020 all states must be issuing REAL ID-compliant cards, and citizens will need to make sure they have an updated card. After that, the TSA won’t accept any identity documents that don’t meet the federal standards.
But before then, there’ll be four planned phases. Each of the first three phases with begin with a three-month ‘notification period’ when non-compliant IDs will still be accepted.
A breakdown of the phases is here, but the key thing to note is that we’ve just entered phase 4 – the one that affects air travel. As of January 22nd 2018, all drivers’ licenses being used as ID at airports will need to be from a compliant state, or one that has an exception.

What does that mean for me as a US citizen?

There are a couple of things to be aware of.

One is the difference between compliant and materially compliant states. While compliant states meet all the requirements of the REAL ID Act, materially compliant states issue cards that meet many but not all of the criteria. The Act also changes the visa limits for some people – specifically temporary workers, nurses and Australian citizens.

At a higher level, the REAL ID Act will fund projects around border security, tighten the laws on applications for asylum and deportation of aliens for terrorism, and waive laws that interfere with the construction of physical barriers at borders.

What’s my new card going to look like?

Pretty different. Beyond the things you might expect (name, photo, signature, etc), there will also be new security features that will help prevent tampering, counterfeiting and other types of fraud. They’ll need to be in a standardized, machine-readable format – think barcodes, smart card technology and the like – but won’t feature RFID chips.

What about businesses that use US driver’s licenses as proof of identity?

Any processes that rely on driver’s licenses will need to be updated, too. Businesses will need to ensure that they both understand the new requirements, and can properly process them. For many, that will mean looking at procedures and updating their tech stack to verify that they can handle the new security features and format.

How’s Onfido getting ready for the change?

The first stop for us is getting the new documents into our global knowledge system, and updating our parameters. Once the new documents are onboarded, the next step will be to train our teams and update our machine learning models. As soon as the new documents start coming through our customer's applications, we’ll be ready for them.


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