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Complete Guide to REAL ID


REAL ID is a law approved by the U.S. Congress back in 2005 to set a common standard for issuing identification documents like Driver's Licenses. The new REAL ID card technology will make it harder to forge or counterfeit an ID.

We’ve prepared this complete REAL ID guide for those Non-U.S. Citizens who qualify to obtain one, as well as identification alternatives for undocumented immigrants who don’t. Read on to learn more about this form of identification and how it will impact you.

What’s REAL ID?

The terrorist attack on the Twin Towers was a turning point in security policies worldwide—especially in the United States. Following 9/11, the U.S. government implemented new security regulations and protocols, including the REAL ID Act. 

It establishes security standards for state-issued driver's licenses and identification cards. The REAL ID initiative requires individuals to present specific identification at security checkpoints, such as airports, federal buildings, U.S. military bases, and nuclear power plants. It only applies to people 18 years and older.

Keep in mind: A driver's license that qualifies as a REAL ID card includes a scannable encrypted area containing the user's information.

What’s the REAL ID used for?

According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the REAL ID will be required to travel by plane inside the U.S., carry out formalities in federal buildings, and visit military bases and nuclear plants after May 3rd, 2023.

In which states does it apply?

The law applies to every state in the country, although its implementation has been gradual. Some states started using it several years ago, and others only began working with it in 2020.

Real ID for People With Legal Status

According to the REAL ID law, only U.S. citizens and immigrants with legal status will be able to acquire this type of ID card. If this is your case, here are the most common doubts about its implementation.

Is it mandatory to have a REAL ID?

At this time, it's not mandatory to obtain a REAL ID. As of 2021, you can travel by air and enter federal buildings using other authorized documents, such as:

  • Your passport
  • A U.S. Military ID card
  • A Global Entry card
  • A Permanent Resident Card

Keep in mind: Some states have emphasized that the REAL ID is an optional document and that it’ll only be required to travel by air or cross any of the above-mentioned security points. At least until May 2023, there won’t be any problems if you do not obtain this document.

What documents do I need to get a REAL ID?

The documents you need to process your REAL ID vary from state to state. As such, we suggest that you consider the following the recommendations:

  1. Visit your state's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) agency. Each state has specific requirements.
  2. Have the following information and documentation available:
  • Full name as it appears on your legal documents
  • Date of Birth
  • Social Security Number
  • Two documents to prove your address
  • Document proving your legal status

Keep in mind: Remember that each state may have additional requirements, so make sure you have all the necessary paperwork to complete your application. For example, if you changed your name when you got married, you’ll need to present a marriage certificate to support this change.

How Do I Know If My License or ID Card Is REAL ID Compliant?

REAL ID-compliant IDs have distinctive stamps at the top of the card. If the card doesn’t have one of these stamps, it does not qualify as a REAL ID.

Some call this ID the "Star Card" because of the symbol that distinguishes it. Learn more about it and see some samples here.

Can I use my REAL ID card to cross the border into Canada and Mexico or travel abroad?

No. This identification only works within the country and doesn’t replace other international documents, such as passports or visas. It's not valid for international crossings in or out of the United States.

Can I Travel by Air without a REAL ID?

Yes, for now. Until the law is fully implemented, you can travel without a REAL ID card. 

Keep in mind: If you don’t have legal status, you can continue to board commercial airplanes without presenting a REAL ID until this law is fully implemented.

Do I Need a Passport If I Have a REAL ID?

A passport is required for you to leave the country. A REAL ID and a passport aren’t interchangeable or a substitute for each other. The passport will allow you to enter another country and return to the United States; the REAL ID won’t.

REAL ID for Undocumented Immigrants?

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A distinguishing feature of the REAL ID law is that the applicant must present a series of documents proving that they have legal permission to reside in the United States to get one. Therefore, at this time, persons without legal status cannot obtain a REAL ID.

Alternative IDs by Immigration Status

Fortunately, if you don't have legal status and can't obtain a REAL ID card, you have several alternatives that allow you to identify yourself at any time.

Matricula cards

One of the best options for acquiring an ID. These are documents issued by your host countries' consulates certifying the nationality and identity of a person residing outside their country. This document will allow you to identify yourself before government institutions in any country.

Keep in mind: remember that Matricula Cards in no way substitute residency or other immigration documents. They function exclusively as identification and to prove your nationality.

ID from your home country

Another alternative for identification is to carry identity documents from your country of origin, such as a voting credential or a driver's license. You can also use your passport as an identification.

Driver’s licenses for undocumented drivers

Some states allow you to obtain a driver's license without legal status. These licenses don’t qualify as REAL ID; however, they function as official identification and enable you to drive vehicles in the US.

Stay Informed About REAL ID Implementation on SABEResPODER

We hope this guide has provided you with the most relevant information about the REAL ID and other options for obtaining an ID according to your legal status.

We’ll also help you stay in the loop about REAL ID’s implementation. Don't hesitate to contact our experts if you have any further questions on this topic. Remember that SABEResPODER!